This One Goes to 11

The St. Louis Symphony puts a cast of (seeming) thousands onstage for its production of Carmina Burana

Sometimes we turn to classical music for a mood of refined elegance or contemplative grace. Here is where Chopin, Satie or Debussy might come in. Other times, we seek the bombast of the symphony turned up full-throttle, as in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" or Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King." This week the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra pulls out all the stops to perform the mother of all bombastic badass classical numbers, Carl Orff's choral magnum opus, Carmina Burana.

To give you an idea of the firepower required to pull this off, the symphony will swell to one of its larger assemblages, about 100 musicians onstage (including seven or eight percussionists and two pianists), joined by the 120-member St. Louis Symphony Chorus, the 40-member top touring group from the St. Louis Symphony Children's Choirs, three vocal soloists and guest conductor Eri Klas. "It's gonna be a packed stage," says Children's Choirs director Barbara Berner.

You may think you haven't heard Carmina Burana, but you're probably mistaken. It has been used in a ton of movies and commercials, which feed off its dramatic power. You can hear it in Satan's favorite film, The Omen, and in John Boorman's best one, Excalibur. It gets a lot of play in commercials for boxing matches on premium cable, too.

St. Louis Symphony Chorus director Amy Kaiser
Christian Steiner
St. Louis Symphony Chorus director Amy Kaiser

Carmina Burana literally means "songs of Beuren," a Benedictine abbey in medieval Bavaria. The title is found on a collection of 250 poems from the 12th or 13th century, written mostly in Latin and early German. They were penned by men called goliards, defrocked monks and minstrels, and by vagantes, vagrant clerics and students. These sketchy fallen quasi-intellectuals managed to compile a tome of songs written in the language of scholars but dedicated to love, lust, drinking and celebrating -- a kind of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with a healthy dose of The Canterbury Tales mixed in.

Orff, a German music teacher, selected about 25 poems and set them to an "imitation-medieval" score, as characterized by St. Louis Symphony Chorus director Amy Kaiser. The songs are divided into three sections: "In Springtime," when a young monk's thoughts turn to love; "In the Tavern," odes to drinking and gambling; and "In the Court of Love," which gets all hot and bothered as spring ardor turns to summer lovin'.

The sequence of songs is a saturnalia of the spiritual, erotic and satirical, with ribald and hedonistic lyrics concertgoers will be able to laugh along with, in translation, in the Carmina program. "This is about wine, women and song," says Kaiser. "It's an ode to earthy living."

Orff debuted the piece in 1937, and audiences had never heard anything like it -- at least, not in a classical context. Critics were bowled over by the music, with its "driving rhythms," "brutality," "sensuality," "paganism" and "pulsing simplicity." Much of the music is played in blocks, or musical thrusts timed to punctuate choral thrusts. The work is not big on melody but is huge on rhythm and sheer mounting power. Orff composed a potent score for a bold libretto, and Carmina was an instant smash. It is still considered one of the most popular choral works for orchestra. Orff wanted what he called "a total theatrical experience" to deliver his meisterwerk, and so Carmina is sometimes performed with dancers, making the stage seem even more crowded.

Members of the St. Louis Symphony Children's Choirs perform during portions of Carmina, and they also perform a 20-minute set of Orff's children's pieces from his Schulwerk collection to open the event. The five songs include a folk song, a lullaby and various other pieces written in German. The kids will be accompanied by percussion instruments only, such as the xylophone, metallophone and timpani.

"This is the first time the Children's Choirs have ever been featured on their own at a symphony concert, and we're really excited about that," says Berner.

Many will also be curious to hear music composed by Orff that is not Carmina, a rare treat. The involvement of children in Carmina, a medieval tribute to lust and debauchery, may seem, um, incongruous, but that's how Orff envisioned his choral collaboration. The children, in the red robes of their choir uniforms, can only somehow accent the lewd, blood-engorged prose of the drunken monks.

Klas, an esteemed journeyman guest conductor, will control the significant coordination of 260 singers and musicians. The native of Estonia is the music director of the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra.

This symphonic opus, to quote Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel, "goes to 11," yet some movements are subtler and softer than the rhythmic charges of the crescendoes. "Some of it is very lyrical and delicate," says Kaiser. Without the gentler moments, there would be no contrast, and the audience would be shell-shocked or deafened.

In the movie Mr. Jones, manic mental patient Richard Gere busts into an orchestral performance of "Ode to Joy," walks up and stands next to the proscenium and upstages the conductor, yelling "More!" or "Louder!" or something like that and trying to direct the symphony by thrashing his arms like a mad Ludwig van Beethoven. He wants to wring as much of the piece's triumphant passion from the musicians as the composer intended. It's not the greatest flick, but the point is that Carmina Burana makes "Ode to Joy" sound like a commercial for cotton balls. Stand back.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Children's Choirs perform Carmina Burana at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m Sunday, April 14-16. Call 534-1700 for tickets.

 
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