Carmina Burana

April 19, 2012

I just got home from Carmina Burana at IU and am thankful I can write because I certainly can’t speak.

While I’m very familiar with the opening of the piece (from endless viewings of Excalibur if nothing else), this was the first time I’ve heard the whole thing. The University Orchestra was joined by the Oratorio Chorus and Children’s Choir. Robert Porco conducted. Rainelle Krause sung soprano; Jacob Williams, tenor; and John Orduna, baritone.

I got there with 10 minutes to spare but there was hardly a seat open in the house. I finally settled in the fourth row, far stage right. But the acoustics in the MAC are so good, I don’t think I missed anything being placed where I was.

The very beginning was just a tiny bit ragged. I couldn’t tell where it was off, but the main parts weren’t quite synched up. But man, that thing comes out of nowhere! It just bashes you over the head and straight through the heart like some chthonic roar of the Earth herself. I’d watched this video beforehand and understood the lyrics for the first time, but the MAC also displayed supertitles. And the intensity—I just felt my flesh lifting up off my bones in response to the power all around me.

The rest of the piece was very interesting. I was afraid it was going to get bogged down in long periods of orchestra-only, but it shifted constantly between small and large sounds. The text comes from 24 twelfth-century poems dealing with Spring, drinking, and love. It was amazingly accessible even without the supertitles.

The baritone had the most solos and he was very good. In one segment he repeatedly went up into his falsetto, caressing the sound, and I just shut my eyes and floated along with it.

The soprano was one of the best voices I’ve heard in my life. She had a big sound but none of the heavy vibrato that so often goes with big voices. She wasn’t heavy at all. Her pitch was true and her interpretation flawless. I am very critical of sopranos in particular because of my own background, but I was enraptured by her artistry.

The poor tenor had hardly anything to do. And the parts he did sing weren’t handled very well. He seemed to be grasping desperately at the high notes rather than shifting registers effortlessly. It was either poor training or sheer pig-headedness on his part. Nobody comes out of the Jacobs school sounding like that.

It was a throwback to see Porco again. I’ve seen him here and there over the years but I am always tossed back to his office where, over 25 years ago, he asked me to sing Care Selve with more tenderness and I discovered a whole new layer of meaning to the piece. He was relentless about getting me into Singing Hoosiers but I had a scheduling conflict (Spanish, methinks). He just kept hammering at me but there was nothing I could do. I ended up in the Women’s Chorus, which sang at The Nutcracker but otherwise didn’t do much. I loved the conductor but hated the other singers. They embodied the worst of the music school—my set example is of the countless sopranos who would hold the note after Paula gave us the cut-off simply because they liked the sound of their own voices. Disgusting.

Anyway! Back to Orff. I can’t freakin’ believe this, but he was largely self-taught! How does this happen? How does art so sublime come from the hand of someone who hasn’t gone through the strict discipline of formal training? I have a hard enough time writing for women’s voices; I stand in awe of people who can compose for orchestra (all those sounds!) in addition to voice! Unbelievable. There was one brief section where I heard a Stravinskyesque bit of jarring thrusts, but it fit into the piece and passed quickly. Each section had its own aural story to tell but also fit into the whole.

The whole thing wanders through life-questioning fate and choices, ending with an absolutely rapturous invocation of Venus when suddenly—bam!—there’s O Fortuna smashing back into you, wiping out the lives and loves of all who have gone before. It’s absolutely devastating. I didn’t realize I was crying until the first tear ran down my face. It was overwhelming.

When the final chord cut off, there was this gorgeous upswell of sound from the audience that I have only heard a few times in my life. It’s this upsurge in energy as everyone is swept to their feet and pounding their hands together helplessly and crying out from the throat in wordless gratitude. It’s what the body does when it’s filled to bursting with art. There were three bows—people just couldn’t stop giving back to this incredible ensemble of artists that had transported us for a brief hour to a contemplation of our place in the world.

Reading the program notes it became clear that Orff was of that generation of early twentieth century artists who believed that art could change the world. The Bauhaus and the Constuctivists were some of the most ardent believers in the cause, but even the nihilistic Futurists believed their art could change things. Paul Rand was one of a handful of graphic designers mid-century who believed graphic design could make a difference. Today we are much more cynical. Art is something to be viewed in a museum and half the time we can’t even justify its existence. (A stick leaning against a wall? Really?) But to these artists, they believed passionately that art could speak to everyday people and change them—largely for the better. And then suddenly I flash to O Fortuna as the soundtrack to a car commercial and I imagine poor old Orff turning over in his grave in despair. Or maybe that trivialization of art is exactly what O Fortuna is talking about. No matter where we fall on the Wheel of Fortune, we will inevitably go down.

What a night!