One of the main reasons I was out of touch last week was the final performance week of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus's 2007-08 season. Under guest conductor Peter Oundjian we performed the 1937 Latin/medieval German cantata Carmina Burana four days in a row. Thursday we got one of the biggest Thursday audiences in recent memory; Friday, Saturday, and Sunday's performances were sold out.
I kid you not. After singing our hearts out to the beautiful music of Rossini, Haydn, and Beethoven in front of half-empty or one-third-empty houses, we sang Orff to three (3) full houses in a row. I knew something big was happening when the ushers told members of the chorus that they couldn't stand at the back of the hall to listen to the first (non-chorus) half of the program on Friday night. "We've sold standing room" was their explanation. By one estimate, 10,000 St. Louisans heard us sing Carmina Burana last week!
The piece is as close to rock'n'roll as certifiably "classic" music can get. And as an audience favorite after more than 70 years, it is certifiably "classic." The last time I sang it, 15 years ago, I was in college; at the time I thought it was just right for college kids. Even so, the mature singers of the SLSC did it better, with scrupulous attention to authentic pronunciation of the "German-Latin" lyrics, and with the strength, agility, and polished vocal musicianship that only comes with years of practice. Nearly everyone in the chorus had sung Carmina before; many of them had sung it multiple times; a goodly few had been with the chorus in the 1990s when they recorded it under Leonard Slatkin.
We had spectacular soloists. Tenor Stanford Olsen (above right; I will cast him as "Fitz" the very minute I am ever put in charge of a stage musical based on Cracker) sang only one number - the complaint of a swan being roasted - but he managed to make the audience laugh more than once with his antics. Even hammier was bass-baritone Lucas Meachem (left), who had the audience in stitches during his racier songs about sex, gambling, and possibly flatulence - but who also delivered one of the most moving moments of each evening with the glowing falsetto, effortless improvisational flourishes, and emotional vulnerability of his song "Dies, nox et omnia."
Soprano Anna Christy (right) looked right for the part of the embodiment of young and seductive womanliness; her final solo ("Dulcissime") is the musical epitome of an orgasm. Barbara Berner's St. Louis Children's Choirs contributed to two numbers, including the ever-popular "Tempus est iocundum," often singing lyrics in Latin which they were too young to hear in English; and of course there was the chorus with its lovelorn women ("Ubi est antiquus meus amicus? Eia, quis me amabit?") and the mocking, drunken, and lustful men ("Tam quo papa quam pro rege bibunt omnes sine lege") - to say nothing of the orchestra with its vast percussion section, its timpanist wholly surrounded by drums, its solos for every instrument including piccolo, and its occasional paroxysms of violent noise.
This piece is a rebellion against classical methods of thematic development, harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration. It is a revolutionary piece that, at the same time, revives poetry dating back to the year of our Lord 1280. It is music that revels in an excess of food, drink, love, and other amusements; music that celebrates spring, youth, and pleasure; and music in which all these things are held between two shattering statements on changeable and changeless fate. It is seriously pagan music preserved for centuries in a monastery; it is seriously primitive music that survives, like the text before it, as a great work of art; and it is seriously fun music that, quite understandably, draws huge crowds to this day - multigenerational crowds of lifelong and devoted fans who roared with approval at our performance that, even if it wasn't always perfect, had nary a dull moment in it.