Friday, September 23, 2011

Carmina Burana (Carl Orff)

Three weeks ago, I attended a concert by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, where Carl Orff's Carmina Burana was the featured piece. Because this blog deals with a wide variety of media in the arts & entertainment world, I wanted to make sure that I wrote about this concert.

This concert was under the baton of Krzysztof Urbánski, the ISO's new Music Director. I had not seen him before, so I went into this concert with a little hesitation. Since the departure of Mario Venzago (who I thought was great in his own right) from the ISO, I have been eager to see what direction the orchestra is going, and with Urbánski's appointment to the ISO at age 27, I had doubts. On top of this, the ISO has invested a great deal in a media campaign to brand the ISO as entering the "Urbánski Era". That being said, Urbánski is all that people say he is and more. He handled the monumental task of conducting Carmina Burana with all of the gravitas needed from the podium, but also crafted wonderful performances of smaller works that required a more subtle interpretation. And all of this was done without any music in front of him during the concert, which is a huge feat in itself. Also fresh was his decision to program the first two pieces, from his native Poland. From what I've read, Urbánski is a champion of Polish music and that should help the ISO carve out a new space in its unique repertoire. I am looking forward to seeing and hearing more of Urbánski's work in the future.

The three pieces performed were Górecki's Three Pieces in Old Style, Kilar's Orawa, and Orff's Carmina Burana. The first two were for string orchestra; the last was for full orchestra, chorus, and child's chorus. I'll go through each of them, one at a time.

Trzy utwory w dawnym stylu (Three Pieces in Old Style) (1963) by Henryk Górecki (1933-2010)

The first movement, a slow one, starts out with seemingly atonal chords, but the listener soon realizes that there is a specific tonal chord progress going on, complete with repetitive melody on top. The minor melody begins with only two chords alternating below it, but changes at a mid-section. It eventually goes back and forth between the two sections, playing them each three times, and growing in volume as it goes.

The second movement is in a moderate tempo and more neoclassical sounding when it first begins. But it, too, is minimalist, and the motif of the top strings is repeated as much as possible, with rhythm being the primary purpose of the movement, moving back and forth from duple to triple time.

The third and final movement is again slow. The harmonics of the strings are used to create an eerie sounding set of drones above the melody. Gorecki tries a unique technique in this movement and stacks the melody on top of itself as the movement goes along. By the end of the piece, there are eight distinct parts, each playing the melody starting on a different note of the scale, with the top and bottom parts being doubled. While this parallelism may seem very dissonant in theory, the performance of it creates a melody that in some ways is very pure: no extra notes but those of the melody get in the way of the music.

Three Pieces in Old Style originally premiered on April 30th, 1964 by the Ensemble 'Con moto ma cantabile'.

Orawa (1988) by Wojciech Kilar (1932-)

This piece is technically minimalist, but I the same way that Ravel's Boléro is minimalist.
It starts very simply with the concertmaster playing a very rhythmic motif which is played for a few measures, changed to a different set of notes with a slightly altered rhythm and then and then we go back and repeat. Sections of different strings are added slowly until the piece finally gains critical mass, and then out of nowhere (about 4 minutes in), a melody played by the cello comes out of nowhere. This melody is in itself also minimalist, but within the context of the first motif, it has a real color that distinguishes it from the other music. While this melody is being played with, the first motif is added again underneath, and the music goes through a wide variety of development of the two themes going at one point back to the small orchestration and theme of the beginning and then growing faster and louder than before. Right after the climax, the strings end with an elongated version of the first theme, and then hurry to finish the piece, with the "tonic" chord sounding, followed by a chord related to the second half of the first theme. While this can many times ruin a piece, the last chord really ended the piece perfectly and gave it a sense of urgency. Through the development, Kilar utilizes whole-tone and pentatonic scales to give an almost pure sound to the building of the piece.

While this piece seems very simple and monotonous, it is actually quite addicting, and I've been listening to it quite regularly since the concert. In the same way that Bolero can get under your skin, this one forces you to keep listening to it.

Wojciech Kilar was born in Poland right before the start of World War II and has worked during his life as a composer of concert music and film scores. At the end of the 1950's, he studied with Nadia Boulanger, one of composition's master teachers. He is perhaps best known in the American film world for his soundtracks to Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and The Pianist (2002). Orawa is a region on the Polish-Slovak border, which has a river of the same name. It is known as a pastoral mountainous region, and while Kilar did not live there, he wanted to invoke the type of folk music typical of the area, albeit in a minimalist fashion.

Carmina Burana (1937) by Carl Orff (1895-1982)

To give you an idea of the scale of piece that Carmina Burana is, here's a picture from the dress rehearsal (notice the two grand pianos!):

After reading through a set of poems by European Medieval goliards, Carl Orff set forth on the ambitious task to set 24 of them to music. Orff’s Carmina Burana, or in Latin “Songs from Beuern,” is a monumental work that covers the gamut of songs from the original poetry book:
love songs, drinking songs, and moral songs. It is divided into three main sections, with the famous “O Fortuna” acting as bookends for the work.

The introduction, Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Fortune, Empress of the World), comprises of two pieces which set the landscape for the work by focusing on the idea of Fortune (the archetype) being a fickle lady; as reflective of the hard times in 11th-13th century Europe, Fortune could be very generous, but then in an instant take everything away from a person. I think my favorite descriptor of this is the line:
“It is written in truth,
that she has a fine head of hair,
but, when it comes to seizing an opportunity
she is bald.”
(2. Fortune plango vulnera)

The first section, Primo Vere (Spring), with eight movements, is much happier and describes pastoral scenes and songs of love. This section features a Dance movement with the orchestra only that is particularly vibrant, but also sporadic. It changes meters almost every-other measure and mixes duple and triple meters within measures, so that the listener has a hard time keeping a steady beat.

The second section, In Taberna (In the Tavern), with four movements, is very much a section of drinking songs. But, each song gives a very specific view of tavern life. The first talks about the tavern being a warm place for travelers to stop on their way. The second is a comedy, with a swan singing about the misery of being roasted. The third is told by an abbot, who tends to “an assembly of drinkers.” The final song talks about all of the various types who can be found drinking and gambling in the tavern.

The third section, Cour D’Amours (In the Court of Love), with 10 movements, is perhaps the most erotic of the poetry in the whole piece. The movements portray love, but not the type usually associated with the fine amour of the Middle Ages. This love is very directly sexual, and each movement conquers love in its own way. The final piece of this section unexpectedly ends by going from its happily regal and epic scope, directly and without stop back into the minor epic scope of “O Fortuna,” in a very chilling way for the audience. This move reminds us that Fortune gives love and can take it away just as easily.

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