Carl Orff’s most famous piece, “Carmina Burana,” (“Songs of Beuern”) begins with a chorus “Fortune, Empress of the World,” which depicts mankind afflicted by the fickle moods of Lady Luck, one minute up and the next moment, in the depths.
I would say that for the Champaign-Urbana Symphony, conducted by Stephen Alltop, the choruses that crowded the choral balcony, and the fine soloists, all of whom produced a magnificent “Carmina Burana,” on Oct. 5, this was a moment at the top of fortune’s wheel, and may it long remain so.
“Carmina Burana” is a remarkable work. It is based on poems probably written by wandering medieval monks and scholars in the 1200s. The collection was discovered in 1803 at a Benedictine monastery in the Bavarian village of Benediktbeuern ( hence the Latin name “Burana”).
Written mostly in Medieval Latin, with some in Middle High German and Provençal, the poems sing of the joys and sorrows of common life, and Orff organized the poems into sections on topics such as springtime and the awakening of nature, the riotous life of the tavern, and the court of love, with its ups and downs.
Orff, who devoted much of his career to teaching the basics of music to schoolchildren, in this work pared his musical style down to the basics.
Amid the arcane and complicated experiments of 20th-century music, Orff went in reverse: His melodies and harmonies are basic, there is little if any development of themes and the rhythms are strong, propulsive and incessant. The Latin of the “Carmina Burana” poems is simpler than classical Latin, and unlike the verses of Horace or Virgil, the poems are rhymed, and with a very strong rhyme at that.
The music of “Carmina Burana” has enormous scope, from the opening roar of “O Fortuna” to the delicate depictions of love and springtime. The very large choral forces play an all-important role.
In this performance, the fine singers of the UI Oratorio Society, led by Andrew Megill, were joined by the highly accomplished Apollo Chorus of Chicago, whose music director is Alltop.
And, singing from the side balconies on each side of Foellinger Great Hall, youngsters of the Central Illinois Youth Chorus, led by Andrea Solya, added a charming touch to some of the songs about love.
The sum total of all these choruses was a marvelous performance, on many levels, from mass attacks, to filigree-light details. The members of the C-U Symphony also did themselves proud, especially the percussion section, Ricardo Flores, principal, and the two pianists, Cara Chowning and Sarah Schwartz, all adding up to a series of memorably executed climaxes and releases.
The three soloists were also excellent. David Newman, bass, played the largest role, singing lustily about his sorrows and the wobbling effects of too much wine. Tenor Justin Berkowitz, had a show-stopping moment when he lurched on stage, also worse for wine, and sang of the woes of a roasting swan, ending with high notes that scraped the top of the tenor range. Véronique Filloux made a highly favorable impression in the role of a maiden shyly facing the attractions of the act of love, and she then produced some stratospheric tones at her moment of consummation.
I have never been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, nor to Munich at the October Festival, but the mood in FGH by the end of “Carmina Burana” seemed to me that of a wild carnival, in which the sky was the limit and everything goes.
Such, anyway, was the feral cry from the audience at the end of the reprise of “O, Fortuna,” and special cheers rang out for the various choruses as the directors came on stage.
Waves of applause went on and on for the soloists, choristers, directors and conductor Alltop and the fine instrumentalists of the C-U Symphony.
It was the most successful concert of this ensemble in my memory.
Oh, yes, the evening began with a stirring performance of another 20th-century masterpiece, the 1919 suite from Igor Stravinsky’s music for the ballet “The Firebird,” with its famous crescendo ending, after which this audience’s reaction was most positive.
The performance of “The Firebird Suite” was dedicated as a memorial tribute to CUSO member, Howard Osborn, who played viola and violin in the orchestra from 1960 to 2007.
A review of the “Apollo’s Fire’s” Vivaldi: “Four Seasons” concert of Oct. 3 will appear in next week’s column.