Carl Orff’s ever-popular “Carmina Burana,” based in earthy Medieval texts, explores a wide range of topics, as contemporary now as they were in the 13th century: fortune and wealth, insecurity of life, pleasures and perils of drinking, gluttony, gambling, and lust — and, of course, the joy of the return of spring.
“It’s a celebration of hope, and enjoyment and heartbreak,” explains Montpelier conductor Mary Jane Austin. “Everything’s an extreme. It’s a Wheel of Fortune where sometimes you are at the top, and then at the bottom. People talk about it having its bawdy moments, but I enjoy the full spectrum of the human experience that it portrays.”
Austin will lead the more than 100 voices of the combined Mad River Chorale and South Burlington Community Chorus in “Carmina Burana” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 4, at Saint Michael’s College’s McCarthy Arts Center Recital Hall in Colchester, and at 4 p.m. Sunday May 5, at the Harwood Union High School auditorium in Duxbury.
Also on the program is Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia,” conducted by Erik Kroncke. (Austin is director of the Mad River Chorale, and Kroncke leads the South Burlington Community Chorus.)
Vocal soloists in “Carmina Burana” are soprano Mary Bonhag, tenor Adam Hall and bass Kroncke.
“We don’t have a baritone so we’ve done a hybrid arrangement for Erik and Adam,” Austin said. “The part is even high for baritones, but I think it’s going to work really well. And with Mary Bonhag, it’s going to be wonderful.”
Accompaniment will be by pianists Alison Cerutti and Samantha Angstman, and Brian Johnson leading a five-member percussion ensemble. (The work was originally written for full orchestra, but Orff himself approved various arrangements.)
“When I was a child my mother sang it with the Cleveland Orchestra and around the house, and my brother sang it with the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus,” Austin said. “And when I was in college, I played the piano in the orchestra, and the two piano version, so I performed it several times.”
Orff (1895-1982) was a German composer and music educator best known for his “Carmina Burana,” which was premiered in Frankfurt in 1937. In 1934, Orff was introduced to the 1847 edition of the “Carmina Burana” by Johann Andreas Schmeller, the original text dating mostly from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, from which he selected 24 poems.
The full Latin title “Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis” translates to “Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magical images.” The music, influenced by the Renaissance and early Baroque, uses harmonic language that is relatively simple — but that can’t be said for the rhythm.
“Although it’s rhythmically complex, it still feels natural,” Austin said. “So once it’s in your body, once we’ve rehearsed it and repeated it, it falls into place. You forget it’s complicated; when you’ve heard it enough, it sounds natural.
“But when you see it on the page, the times are very complex. As a conductor you’re well aware of that,” she said. “But it sounds great.”
“Carmina Burana” has become one of the most-performed choral works ever, popular with choruses and audiences alike — in part, because of the excitement it generates.
“There are extremes in the musical composition for sure,” Austin said. “Rhythmically and viscerally it feels like a whole-body experience, when you’re conducting it certainly, and when you’re singing it as well. It was originally conceived with a dance element, so it makes sense.”
Austin is best known as a pianist, chamber musician and vocal coach who works regularly with Opera Company of Middlebury and Unadilla Theatre, among others. Conducting is a relatively new avocation.
“I’m enjoying it,” Austin said. “It’s sort of happened to me, so I’ve accepted it and am fully involved.”
How does it feel?
“Wonderful, actually,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”