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The Chapel Hill Community Chorus and assembled forces under the direction of Sue Klausmeyer presented Carl Orff's ever-rambunctious and exhilarating Carmina Burana at Memorial Auditorium before a nearly sold-out crowd.
Based on poems found in the medieval collection known in its full title as Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis (Songs of Beuern [a region in Bavaria]: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images). Inspired by these texts, Orff composed music for a triptych of cantatas: Carmina Burana, premiered in Frankfurt in 1937, Catulli Carmina, first heard in Leipzig in 1943, and Trionfo di Afrodite, heard in Milan in 1953 along with the first two parts of the trilogy under the general title Trionfi. The three "scenic cantatas" are very similar in style and character. Orff sought to revive medieval monophonic forms and employed dissonant counterpoint along with asymmetric and lively rhythms. The first of the three pieces is by far the most popular and most frequently performed. The opening chorus "O Fortuna" ("O Fortune"), practically a 20th-century icon of vigor and enthusiasm, is heard frequently in cinema, TV, and radio commercials as well as on "youtube" and elsewhere.
The work is structured in three major sections, two of them subdivided; the 25 specific poems are to be performed immediately, without pause or interruption (attacca in musical terminology). Simplified, the cantata relates the quest for love's realization through disappointment, joy, bitterness, drunkenness, and longing to final fulfillment as the wheel of fortune turns.
A full performance requires a large chorus, a chamber choir, boys choir, symphony orchestra supplemented by two pianos, a considerable array of percussion, and soloists. From personal experience, it is a work that is a lot of fun to perform, but it has some extraordinary challenges.
Michael Mayes, the baritone, held his own and then some through many demanding segments requiring a great diversity of vocal styles, range, and interpretation. North Carolina native, counter-tenor Frank Zachary, made a brave and amusing effort at acting out the role of the "cooked swan" in "Olim lacus colueram" ("Once in lakes I made my home"). After all, it was Orff's intention that Carmina Burana be staged with dance, choreography, visual design, and stage action. Soprano Elizabeth Williams-Grayson was technically superb, nailing the high D in the brief "Dulcissime" ("Sweetest boy") solo. "In trutina" ("In the scales") did not communicate the sweet innocence I prefer in this haunting solo, but it still was very nicely sung.
The North Carolina Boys Choir, prepared by Director Bill Graham and his assistant Scott Mann, looked neat and well disciplined and sang well. The chorus and orchestra have a daunting task in the preparation of this challenging music, with its whipping and inconstant rhythms; and the chorus has to deal with an overwhelming array of Latin and Old German texts. Sometimes unfamiliar words must be sung in syllables that come at you faster than a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song on steroids. Some of these details got a little shaky at times. The mellismatic rolls in "Ecce gratum" ("Behold, the pleasant Spring") were noticeably lacking in precision. Some orchestra members fumbled a note or two and occasionally had trouble being on time with entrances.
In spite of a few problems with precision and ensemble, the piece never threatened to fall apart, and many in the audience less familiar with it than this reviewer may not have noticed or cared. Klausmeyer calmly maintained control and in the end the overall effect was exactly what was wanted. It was an exhilarating and fun evening.