Given Carl Orff’s lifelong interest in music education, one can imagine him being pleased at the involvement of so many young people in Sunday afternoon’s Omaha presentation of his best-known work for adults.
In the same educational spirit, however, the controversies surrounding Orff’s 1937 choral classic “Carmina Burana” deserve mention after well-deserved praise for the latest triumph of the Omaha Symphony’s Choral Collaborative program.
Though the symphony and its three professional soloists performed superbly, Sunday’s heroes undoubtedly were the 500-some teenagers in red, blue, purple and black choir robes.
They spilled out from the Holland Performing Arts Center’s choral balcony halfway around the first tier, supplying the vocal backbone for Orff’s magnum opus with poise, passion and an impressive display of diction and dynamics.
Resident Conductor Ernest Richardson put it well in calling the performance by the combination of five high school choirs — Bellevue West, Lincoln Southwest, Omaha Central, Papillion-La Vista South and Omaha Westside — “a testament to our youth and the teachers who lead them.”
One cannot help but admire the work ethic of these singers, who put in many hours of rehearsal while pursuing their other interests. Many of them most likely will take part in another mass choir performance with more than 400 of Nebraska’s best high school vocal students next weekend, during the Nebraska Music Educators Association’s annual All-State clinic in Lincoln.
A more specialized vocal role fell to the 60-some boys and girls of the Omaha Public Schools’ Mini-Singers Chorus, who sang with poise and grace on the Holland stage alongside soprano soloist Stacey Tappan.
But given the earthy and even erotic nature of the 14th-century source poems behind “Carmina Burana,” it’s fortuitous that Orff stuck with the original Latin and German in setting the 24 movements sung by the young choristers, Tappan, baritone Christopher Burchett and tenor Marc Molomot.
In addition to “Carmina Burana,” Orff probably is known best for his “Orff Schulwerk” system of teaching the basics of music-making to children in an exploratory, improvisational environment.
There’s almost nothing childlike about “Carmina Burana,” however, except for a humorous verse about an unfortunate swan roasting on a spit (gestured as well as sung by Molomot with great hilarity).
Between the thrilling yet chilling musical bookends of “O Fortuna” (regularly quoted in U.S. popular culture), Orff depicts the beauty of nature, the bawdiness of medieval taverns and the propensity of young men and women to pursue and succumb to sexual lusts.
This was one reason that “Carmina Burana” was edgy in its day. But Orff, a friend and colleague of Jewish and Marxist composers in Germany, also drew criticism for staying and working in his homeland after the 1933 Nazi takeover.
“Carmina Burana” happened to premiere a year before Adolf Hitler annexed Austria to launch his murderous quest for world domination. Might Orff have intended a subtle commentary in opening his masterwork with these words: “O Fortune, like the moon you are changeable, ever waxing and waning”?