A sensory feast: Orff’s massive ‘Carmina burana’ storms the amp

The sights

Story by Abe Kenmore & Hayley Ross

They say the third time’s the charm. That is what Marty Merkley, vice president and director of programming, hopes will be the case for the performance of Carmina Burana at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater.

Carmina Burana is also the culmination of a three-year Inter-arts Collaboration Initiative.

For the final year, Merkley wanted to take a production in its entirety and give it what he called a “Chautauqua twist.”

Carmina Burana is a culmination of over 250 poems written by monks in the 13th century. The poems were about everything from spring to love to drinking. Carl Orff discovered these poems in a library in Germany and used them to create the first production of Carmina Burana in 1937. The production combines art, dance, orchestra and chorus with a cast of more than 500 performers total.

“Orff wrote [Carmina Burana] so that it could all be danced to — dance, orchestra and chorus as three equal players,” Merkley said.

The production’s twist is nine extra musical segments called “olios,” which were added to the production, along with 11 sections of dialogue, in English, to help the audience understand the poems’ meanings. A prelude was also added before “O Fortuna,” the first and last poem of the production.

Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, artistic director of Chautauqua Dance, created the choreography for the original 1992 Chautauqua production of Carmina Burana. Although the choreography is primarily the same, the cast of dancers is completely new.

Dancers from the Charlotte Ballet will perform in the original 25 movements with additional Chautauqua Festival and Apprentice dancers from the School of Dance for the larger ensemble sections. Between the company and School of Dance, the performance will include about 40 dancers total.

Bonnefoux drew from the themes of the poems for his choreography in Carmina Burana. He said some of his favorite sections are about love, longing and searching. He also said there are some fun parts, such as a section called “In the Tavern.”

“It’s just about human beings, their troubles and their paths in life,” Bonnefoux said.

Although Bonnefoux usually choreographs more classical work, he said this production cannot be classified by a specific style. Some of the sections are filled with emotions and drama, he said.

“You cannot just rely on classical ballet for that,” Bonnefoux said.

Younger Workshop II dancers will take part in two newly choreographed sections of the production. The first, “Girls in the Meadow,” is a section for all girls using a maypole, choreographed by dance faculty member, Maris Battaglia.

The second is an olio section for three bagpipe players, choreographed by Associate Artistic Director of the Charlotte Ballet, Sasha Janes. Titled “Three Bags Full,” the section will incorporate Workshop II boys.

“I really liked the idea because we can involve our school more,” Bonnefoux said.

The performance will take part in front of a painting by Don Kimes, artistic director of the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution. The work is 4 feet high and stretches across almost the entire back of the stage.

“[Burana is] an epic opera, and you experience it through long periods of time,” Kimes said.

His painting reflects that epic, sequential idea.

“There are moments in the painting that are quieter than others, there are moments that are darker, there are moments that are lighter,” Kimes said.

Kimes cited the Ballet Russes as an early example of collaboration between dance and the visual arts, a tradition of cross-discipline work that he says is more lacking now.

“As universities took over the arts, things became much more segmented than they were before,” he said.

Chautauqua, though, has the potential to pull together all the arts — both those on the grounds and those from further afield.

Chorus members will be coming from Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh for only one rehearsal with the whole cast Saturday afternoon.

“The rehearsal is run almost like a military,” Merkley said. “Everyone has to know what to do and where to go.”

Chautauqua has had practice putting together these collaborations, though Carmina Burana may be the grandest. The first inter-arts collaboration was The Romeo & Juliet Project in 2013. The idea was to take an existing work that had been performed as a ballet, opera, play, etc., and combine those elements to create a new production. In 2014, Go West! took on the westward expansion, which is rarely used in arts productions, and built a production based on it.

Merkley has been heavily involved in the Carmina Burana project since he started at Chautauqua Institution. The production has been performed twice in Chautauqua’s history, once in 1992, again in 1999 and now a third time in 2015. It’s been such a favorite at the Institution that people are still talking about the productions in 1992 and 1999, Merkley said.

Because only a small portion of Chautauqua gets to see the performance, it will be performed twice during the season. Chautauquans will have a second chance to see Carmina Burana as it is recreated once again on Aug. 15.

The sounds

Fortune brings together Chautauqua’s musicians, vocalists, dancers and artists in the Amphitheater for Carmina Burana, Chautauqua Institution’s third annual inter-arts collaboration at 8:15 p.m. Saturday.

Guest conductor Timothy Muffitt is one of the directors responsible for coordinating the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s performance with no less than four chorus and vocal groups — and that’s to say nothing of the intricate visual arts components. Ideally, he said, the audience won’t notice that coordination.

“What we want to achieve is a truly integrated whole,” Muffitt said. “When we’ve got literally hundreds of people involved, that’s a lot to integrate. How can we put all this together and really have the arts at Chautauqua firing on all eight cylinders?”

Ever since 20th-century composer Carl Orff set music to the medieval text on which the work is modeled, Carmina Burana has been one of the most popular and enduring pieces of classical repertoire. Muffitt said he doubts there will be anyone unfamiliar with at least bits and pieces of Saturday’s performance, particularly the “O Fortuna” movements. If someone hasn’t listened in a concert hall, they’re likely to have caught snippets in movie soundtracks or Old Spice TV ads.

As for why, Muffitt said the easy answer is the work’s sheer enormity and sonic power. But he also said Orff wrote it in a strophic form that’s inherently appealing to the modern ear with verses that are repeated and reprised — it’s basically a pop song, Muffitt said.

Saturday’s rendition will be something of a remix, with additional instruments, movements and dialogue. Marty Merkley, vice president and director of programming, brought in Wayne Hankin to bolster the original arrangement with all the resources at Chautauqua’s disposal.

A specialist in early music performance, Hankin has studied Orff extensively. He composed three new pieces for the Chautauqua performance of Carmina Burana. These include a prelude and an interlude, “The Bells of Childhood,” written for the Motet Choir and medieval instrumentation. An additional interlude, “Three Bags Full,” is an adaptation of a piece written by Orff for the 1936 Berlin Olympics Children’s Day that Hankin believes will be performed for the first time in over 80 years. These compositions incorporate more than 50 pre-classical instruments ranging from tabors to bagpipes in order to reflect the medieval origin of the text.

Hankin’s prelude also adds a special appearance by Institution Organist Jared Jacobsen on the Amp’s Massey Memorial Organ.

“The only thing that’s not in Orff’s original score is a pipe organ, which is kind of curious because everything else is in it,” Jacobsen said. “So this is kind of a Hail Mary pass of Carmina Buranas because we’re going to just kind of put everything in it that we have at Chautauqua in ways that we feel are faithful to the original.”

And Carmina Burana would not include everything without the Massey Organ — the largest outdoor organ in the world. Although it’s mentioned nowhere in the original score, Hankin said Orff would likely approve of his big addition.

“Orff wanted firepower,” he said. “This is no small little piece. He wrote it to be loud, and he wrote it to be big, and he writes very small as well, but he really runs the gamut of the dynamics. So I don’t think the organ is inappropriate.”

But the organ also presents a unique logistical challenge. Because the entire stage is required for musicians and dancers, Jacobsen and the stage crew must hide the organ console in the Amp’s woodwork, an arrangement Jacobsen calls “organist in a box.”

To keep track of the rest of the performers, Jacobsen will watch Muffitt’s face and hands on a video monitor and listen in through headphones connected to a microphone mounted near the conductor’s ear. When the prelude is over, Jacobsen will leave the woodwork through a small hatch and join the orchestra on the celeste.

Overlooking these maneuvers from the gallery, two professional choirs — the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and the Rochester Oratorio Society — will perform Orff’s original choral score. These groups will collectively stuff 225 singers into the Amphitheater.

Though the directors of both groups said that Carmina Burana is a staple of the choral repertoire, they emphasized the difficulty of the work for singers.

“I think the most difficult element for the chorus is the text,” said Adam Luebke, conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus. “There’s a lot of words, and they’re in both Latin and medieval German, and a lot of it goes by fast. So getting all of the consonants and vowels just right and really delivering the text explicitly and cleanly is a challenge.”

Though Eric Townell, conductor of the Rochester Oratorio Society, also mentioned the difficulty of the text, he said that the piece is exciting to perform.

“It has a real visceral attachment for the singers,” he said. “It’s just fun to sing, and it’s enormously exciting to be part of a piece that gets bigger than any single participant. It takes on a life of its own and gets bigger than everybody in the room.”

All told, Muffitt said audience members should prepare themselves for a “sensory feast” come Saturday.

“It’s probably like putting on some 3-D glasses — when you see this work and this concept from a new perspective and with a deeper vision,” Muffitt said.

Still, these are additional layers erected upon a durable foundation. Like previous inter-arts collaborations The Romeo and Juliet Project and Go West!, Muffit said the inherent value of Carmina Burana lies with its spin on universal themes that make it more than just a Saturday night Amp special.

“I probably wouldn’t call it entertainment, but I might call it enlightenment,” Muffitt said.