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VOL. 127 | NO. 99 | Monday, May 21, 2012



MSO Brings Orff to Audience

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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The Memphis Symphony Orchestra will finish out this season’s First Tennessee Masterworks concert series with an ancient work which has woven itself into present day culture.

Memphis Symphony Orchestra closes the First Tennessee Masterworks concert series with Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” a collection of ancient songs on themes of humanity that holds a special place in American culture. (Photo: Courtesy of Memphis Symphony Orchestra)

Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” which plays Saturday, May 19, at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts and Sunday, May 20, at the Germantown performing Arts Centre, brings together an unusual mix of classical music, ancient poems, pop culture and surprisingly, children’s music.

“It’s one of the ‘Top 40’ pieces for any orchestra,” said Brandon Knisley, MSO’s vice president of artistic engagement. “It’s one of those fantastic works not only for the orchestra, but for the chorus as well.”

The orchestra will include about 80 instruments and two grand pianos.

“Most people know the song ‘O Fortuna,’ which is in commercials and movies and we all know the drama of it,” said Knisley, referring to the most famous song in Orff’s composition.

“What struck me as I learned more about ‘Carmina Burana’ is that it’s very tongue-and-cheek. Orff is exploring all different aspects of humanity in a serious manner, but they way he does that is by not taking it too seriously. It’s fun.”

The exact origin of “Carmina Burana” has been debated by academics, but is believed to have been a series of over 30 poems dating back perhaps as early as the 11th century in central Europe.

The poems could be divided into subsections dealing with themes like morals and mockery, love, drinking and gaming, and spiritual theater. Life, in other words.

Orff’s contemporary composition includes only 24 songs, sung in various regional pronunciations of Latin like Germanic and Roman. The MSO concert will project English subtitles onto a screen for the audience.

While most people have heard the song “O Fortuna,” many do not know its name. A massive and overly dramatic chorus number, the song has a primal grandeur that fits well into adventure movies.

But it’s not the only show-stopper on the program.

“If there’s one other work that is almost as famous as ‘O Fortuna’ it’s the tenor aria, ‘The Swan Aria,’” Knisely said. “It’s a very humorous text. The story is of a swan being roasted on a spit, told in first person. It’s melodramatically humorous and over-the-top.”

Tenor John McVeigh will sing the tenor solos. He’s joined by soprano Priti Gandhi, and baritone Philip Cutlip.

The 120-member MSO Chorus will perform as well with the help of a children’s chorus from the Campus School at the University of Memphis, led by Susan Van Dyck.

The connection between Orff and children’s music comes in the form of Orff Schulwerk, an approach to teaching music to elementary school children, developed by Orff, and adopted by Memphis City Schools.

This approach allows children to participate in music making before they tackle the complexities and technicalities of reading music.

“(Children) can already be creative with simple instruments,” Knisley said. “We have a wonderful relationship with Memphis City Schools and a number of the Orff instructors will be joining us for the concert.”

Lynne Turley, who first brought Orff to the schools, and Winsel Sterling, who currently oversees the program, will join music director Mei-Ann Chen at a pre-concert lecture to discuss Orff’s methodology and its effect on music education.

Meanwhile around the lobby, various stations will be set up so that audience members can try their hands at the Orff approach.

“Memphis is very fortunate to have schools with such a robust music program,” Knisley said. “It’s rarer than a lot of people realize.”

Both concerts will open with the overture to Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” followed by various arias and a trio from the opera, sung by Gandhi, McVeigh, and Cutlip.

Saturday’s concert begins at 8 p.m. and Sunday’s begins at 2:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at www.memphissymphony.org.

For more on MSO, see this week’s cover story.

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