Peninsula musicians, singers prepare to play Orff's 'Carmina Burana'

Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2004

Before the musicians rehearsing at the Mariner Theatre last week emitted a single note, drama resonated from the stage as the 150-plus-member chorus stood up on cue with military precision.

A glance at their alert, focused faces foreshadowed the power of the music to come with the opening notes of "Carmina Burana" by Carl Orff.

The work may not be familiar to all by name, but the music will ring a bell for many. The opening chorus, "O Fortuna," is often used in tense moments in movies as well as commercials, including a recently released TV ad for super-spicy potato chips.

"Being surrounded by all that vibration and sound is just unbelievable," said violin player Sara Gaut. "People are going to be on the edge of their seats the entire time."

"Carmina Burana" translates into "Songs from Benediktbeuern" and draws from a manuscript collection of 200 medieval poems and songs written between 1220 and 1250 by a group of defrocked monks and minstrels.

Few written works from this time period depict such a down-to-earth version of life since most literate people were ill-inclined to acknowledge life on the streets. From this highly educated but spurned group emerged tales of their rioting, gambling and sexual exploits, as well as thoughts about mortality, fate and humor. One tenor solo is the voice of a swan roasting on a spit in a tavern, bemoaning his fate.

"It's a very earthy glimpse of life" in the 13th century, said Mark Robinson, conductor and artistic director of the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra.

In the 1930s Carl Orff was stirred by the rhythms and vividness of the poems and set them to music. They were first performed at the Frankfurt Opera in 1937 and were originally intended to be somewhat theatrical, with dance sequences included.

Asked to describe the music, many performers lighted on the word "percussive" to describe the widely varying melodies. Pianos are thumped, strings are plucked and Latin words are chanted at a tongue-twisting tempo that would put many rappers to shame. The performances will include nearly 200 chorus members, including 30 singers from Homer Middle School, 90 from Homer High School Concert Choir and 70 from the Kenai Peninsula Community Chorus. In addition, 40 Kenai Peninsula Orchestra musicians will take the stage. Three guest soloists from Anchorage will perform soprano Statsia Jamieson, tenor Andrew Sweeney and baritone Todd Jackson.

One of the greatest challenges in performing this unpredictable work, musicians said, is keeping the orchestra and choir balanced. With music so raucous and powerful, it's difficult to hold back, causing Robinson to remind the orchestra countless times to play a tad softer.

"It's so powerful," Robinson said. "It's kind of powerful the way rock and roll is. Much of it has these driving movements. It's really fun music to sing once you get your tongue around the words."

Gaut said as impressive as the music itself is the community involvement in the work. The more than 220 performers have been rehearsing since November and run the gamut from students to retirees, she noted.

"The scale alone will be impressive," said Robinson.

"Carmina Burana" will be performed in Homer at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Mariner Theatre with a preconcert lecture at 6:45 p.m. and at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School at 4 p.m. Sunday with a preconcert lecture at 3:15 p.m.

Tickets are $12 general admission, $10 for seniors, $9 for Raven club members, $7 for youths and for $35 families. Tickets are available in Homer at The Homer Bookstore and Etude Music Studio, in Soldotna at River City Books and in Kenai at Charlotte's Restaurant. For reservations, call 235-7579.

Carey James is a reporter for the Homer News.

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