Music News & Reviews

You’ve heard ‘Carmina Burana’ before. Now experience the cult classic live in SLO

Gemma Campbell of Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo dances the role of Flora, the goddess of flowers, in the San Luis Obispo Master Chorale’s production of “Carmina Burana.”
Gemma Campbell of Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo dances the role of Flora, the goddess of flowers, in the San Luis Obispo Master Chorale’s production of “Carmina Burana.”

Few songs have the sheer force of “O Fortuna.”

The opening movement of “Carmina Burana,” Carl Orff’s classical music masterpiece, has been adding extra drama to movie soundtracks, trailers, television shows and commercials for decades. Whether scoring a slap bet on “How I Met Your Mother” or punctuating a presidential debate on “Saturday Night Live,” it’s as urgent as a fire alarm and as powerful as a punch to the gut.

“Obviously, it’s a crowd pleaser,” said Cal Poly music professor Thomas Davies, music director and conductor of the San Luis Obispo Master Chorale.

“There is almost a cult following for ‘Carmina Burana,’ ” he said. “There are some people that have never gone to a classical concert, but if you say you’re doing ‘Carmina Burana,’ they show up.”

The SLO Master Chorale chorus and orchestra will join Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo and the Central Coast Children’s Choir for two performances of “Carmina Burana” on May 20 and 21.

Three soloists — soprano Elissa Johnston, tenor Tim Gonzales and baritone Gabriel Manro — will also take the stage.

Composed by German composer Carl Orff in the mid-1930s, “Carmina Burana” takes its title and its text from a collection of medieval poetry discovered in a monastery near Munich in the early 19th century. The libretto is based on 24 poems — mostly in Latin with some medieval German and French thrown in for good measure. (Lyrics will be translated into English during the concerts via supertitle.)

According to Davies, the cantata, which premiered in Germany in 1937, kicks off with a tribute to “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” (“Fortune, Empress of the World”).

“The first section is about the wheel of fortune,” he explained. “One minute you’re up and the next you’re down.”

Another section, “Primo vere” (“In Spring”), celebrates the beauty of the season. “In Taberna” (“In the Tavern”) salutes the pleasures of the flesh, from alcohol to sex to gambling, while “Cour d’amours” (“Court of Love”) offers a lusty look at romance.

Musically, “Carmina Burana” ranges to intimate chamber music to sheer orchestral firepower with vocal solos that soar.

“When Orff put this together, he was using the whole world of sound that was at his disposal,” Davies said, resulting in a rhythmically thrilling work with creative instrumentation. “You’ve got everything but the kitchen sink that’s been used.”

The SLO Master Chorale’s production, which features 100-some adult singers, about 60 musicians and as many as two dozen children, uses creative staging to put the powerful music at the forefront. Thirteen dancers from Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo add a visual element.

“Golly, it’s hard to find people who will sit down and just listen,” Davies said with a chuckle. “There has to be something that is there to be seen.”

According to Theresa Slobodnik, founder and artistic director of Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo, dancers accompany 15 or so segments of “Carmina Burana,” portraying a mix of mortals and celestial beings. “Veris leta facies” (“The merry face of spring”) features a dance between sun god Phoebes, Flora, the goddess of flowers, and Zephyr, the god of the west wind.

Costumes created by principal dancer Michelle McLaughlin have a “light medieval look,” Slobodnik said, echoed by lighting designer Nathan Deack. “We’re not using any props. We’re going to just really go for the architecture … of the dances.”

“The music has so much to offer with texture, melody, dynamics, storytelling,” Slobodnik said. “All of it just lends itself to dance.”

The “Carmina Burana” concerts close out an ambitious season for SLO Master Chorale, celebrating its 33rd anniversary.

In November, the all-volunteer choir performed “Itaipú,” avant-garde composer Philip Glass’s musical tribute to the world’s second largest hydroelectric dam. The chorale celebrated the holidays with a sing-along version of George Handel’s “Messiah.”

“We’ve done pieces that are technically more difficult than ‘Carmina Burana,’ but putting together all these forces” is a new experience, said Davies, who retires as Cal Poly’s director of choral activities and vocal studies in June. “It’s an exciting, fun work to do.”

‘Carmina Burana’

8 p.m. May 20 and 3 p.m. May 21

Cohan Center, Performing Arts Center, Cal Poly

$14 to $50

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