Choral music highlight of the week
By Peter Jacobi H-T Columnist
April 15, 2012, last update: 4/14 @ 1:05 pm
Choral music draws our attention this week, with major events both on and off campus. In combination, they offer a classic combination of the sacred and the profane.
The profane comes first: a performance at the Musical Arts Center Wednesday evening of Carl Orff’s cantata “Carmina Burana,” based on 13th century texts left by wandering students and defrocked monks recounting tales of ribaldry, drink and romance. The original songs having for the most part been lost to history, Orff wrote new music that arguably turned into the most successful choral work of scope composed in the 20th century. The cantata brings together the Jacobs School’s Oratorio Chorus, several other IU choirs, the University Orchestra, and soloists, all under the direction of Robert Porco.
The sacred follows: a performance Saturday evening at the Evangelical Community Church of the “Missa Solemnis” (“Solemn Mass”), Beethoven’s profoundly spiritual and personal expression of devotion to God. This concert features the Bloomington Chamber Singers, an orchestra of selected local musicians, and soloists. BCS music director Gerald Sousa conducts.
Orff at the university
Conductor Porco, chairman of IU’s choral department during the 1980s and ’90s, now serves as director of choruses for The Cleveland Orchestra and director of Cincinnati’s annual May Festival. He returns to Bloomington with regularity to teach doctoral-level conducting students and, sometimes, to also lead a choral program.
Initially, Wednesday’s concert was to have included the mighty and more rarely performed Prologue to Arrigo Boito’s opera “Mefistofele,” in which the sacred (heavenly choirs) and the profane (Mefistofele) meet. But the demands of “Carmina Burana” and a couple of unstated reasons changed his mind. Thus, the Boito must be left for another time. Unfortunately, say I; it’s a great piece.
But “Carmina” is always welcome. Porco says: “I love it a lot. I’m fascinated by medieval texts, the hundreds of poems and verses left. Orff used 24, dividing them into three sections, one devoted to spring, another to the tavern and drinking, the last to love. They can be exultant, sarcastic and bitter. The famous opening chorus, “O fortuna,” used in commercials and seemingly everywhere, is an outcry about fate and its power. The Cleveland Cavaliers played it regularly to introduce the team while Lebron James was debating his future. Ah, fate!
“The cantata is what Orff will be remembered for,” Porco continues.
Orff himself told his publisher: “Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With ‘Carmina Burana’, my collected works begin.”
“The music is exciting,” says Porco. “It requires a vast orchestra, with extra woodwinds, one for each instrument, a huge battery of percussion, and pianos. The range of colors is great. And the repetitive nature of the music is absolutely contagious. The melodies and rhythms take hold.”
Beethoven in town
When Beethoven finished the “Missa Solemnis” about five years before his death, he called it “the greatest work that I have composed.” Gerald Sousa says he’s studied it, as singer and conductor, for more than 40 years.
“For me,” he says, “it has a well so deep that it always offers more to quench the thirst for understanding. It is a piece that I have to remind myself constantly to maintain a level of objectivity because it embodies the spiritual essence of a man who drew from and emanated energy on a plane few of us can imagine.
“Though he used the doctrinal framework of the Roman Catholic Mass, his vision is infinite and transcends all sect boundaries,” Sousa adds. “Like the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven’s music is universal and pure. Every day I work on the ‘Missa,’ I come in contact with these ideals and beliefs. I am still overwhelmed, but now I am beginning to realize the reason for that feeling. It’s because Beethoven himself was overwhelmed by what he had come to believe and needed to convey.”
Unlike “most of the composers who have endured,” notes Sousa, “Beethoven wrote very little for chorus … Because of this, most of us rarely get the opportunity to sing music by this astounding and towering musical figure.”
That being so, he says, putting the Bloomington Chamber Singers to work on “Missa Solemnis” was a way to reward its members for their “serious, committed passion” by challenging them with “extraordinary technical demands. Like Bach’s ‘Matthew Passion,’ it is a work that cannot be performed without stretching to new levels. It is a mountain many choruses dream of but few tackle. I felt that many years of hard work had finally prepared us to have the courage and tenacity to mount it.”
Pointing to Beethoven’s inscription on the score, “From the heart — may it go again to the heart,” Sousa expresses the hope Saturday’s performance becomes a conduit leading from musicians “deeply connected to a work of power and genius,” to waiting listeners “for what Beethoven believed and dedicated his life to expressing.”
If you goTo “Carmina Burana”— Carl Orff’s dramatic cantata will be performed 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Musical Arts Center, 101 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington. Admission: Free.
To “Missa Solemnis” — Beethoven’s moving “Solemn Mass” is 8 p.m. Saturday in the Evangelical Community Church, 503 S. High St., Bloomington. Admission: $25 for adults; $20 for seniors and students.