Carmina Burana: You’ve heard that song before

Posted on Mar 18, 2014 by

carmina buranaPlease join us on Saturday, May 3 when we perform Carmina Burana with the Fox Valley Symphony. Tickets are available through the Fox Cities PAC box office by calling the PAC box office or by purchasing tickets online at

Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana has become a classic for musicians and audiences because of its percussive music, hypnotic melodies, lilting passages and all-out, smash-mouth, robust orchestration. The rowdy subject matter is set to some of the most beautiful melodies in classical choral literature.

The Carmina were songs of medieval traveling students and ex-monks who left universities and monasteries to pursue a roaring life of gambling, drinking and making love. The texts of the songs were discovered in a Bavarian monastery near Munich in the early 20th-century and are a mixture of 13th-century Latin and “low” German. The songs in the Carmina cover a range of topics, as familiar then as they are today: the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the ephemeral nature of life, the joy of the return of Spring, and the pleasures and perils of drinking, gluttony, gambling and lust.

According to newVoices Artistic Director, Phillip Swan, the masterwork is a welcome collaboration with the symphony. “Choral/orchestral collaborations provide a cross-pollination of musical interests,” Swan said. “Consequently, it’s good for the community to have arts organizations working together to put on quality productions.”

For singers, Carmina Burana is a vocal challenge because of the range of emotions needed to interpret the composer’s music. One movement requires percussive, full-voiced singing while the next movement requires gentle, lyrical singing. In order for a singer to navigate the demands of each movement, it requires constant breath support and precise vocal technique.

And it’s a big sing. The chorus sings in almost every movement, which requires what we call “smart singing.” It’s very easy to over-sing in some sections causing hoarseness, pitch problems and less than lovely tone later in the piece.

“It’s like running a marathon at full speed the whole time,” said Dan Van Sickle, baritone.  “Even the slow and gentle movements have an edge to them – you can’t let down,” he said.

Another challenge for singers is the language. Although we are trained to sing in foreign languages, Orff uses a historical text in middle high German and Latin. That means passages that look like modern German require a different pronunciation characteristic of only this work.

“The challenge is remembering exactly how the conductor will want it sung, knowing that many recordings you might sing along with are not what’s desired,” said Maggie Allen, soprano. “The first time I performed it (from memory) was in traditional Latin and German, not the “old” languages we are doing for this performance.”

The piece also features three solo roles. Lawrence graduate Alisa Jordheim will sing the soprano role which requires extremely high notes in one of the arias. Lawrence voice professor Steven Paul Spears will sing a tenor aria, which must be sung almost completely in falsetto to demonstrate the suffering of the character (in this case, a roasting swan). Chad Sloan will sing the baritone role which features demanding high notes not commonly found in baritone repertoire.

Finally, we will be joined by the Lawrence Arts Academy of Music Capriccio Girl Choir for this performance. This choir is conducted by Jaclyn Kottman who also sings with newVoices.

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