TSO: Carmina Burana

It’s that magical time of year again when yard work, baseball, symphony, and various turkey- and candy-centric holidays collide!

Wednesday night was the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s launch of its 07/80 season.  The audience had turned out in all its finery.  My wife was dressed to the nines in a slinky black dress and heels, and I was doing my best impression of a Cubicle Drone in dress slacks and shirt—plus a couple of stylish plastic security passes clipped to my belt.  What can I say, I forgot it was Opening Night.

First on the docket was the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, which TSO dedicated to Mr. Richard Bradshaw, the recently deceased General Director of the Canadian Opera Company.  Poor chap passed away in Pearson Airport after returning from a Maritime holiday with his wife.  If I were a GTAA mandarin, I would’ve had an ad-hoc memorial right at the airport.  It would have been a piece of cake to refuse landing rights to the next four airliners in the pattern until they agreed to form up and fly a missing man formation.  At any rate, good of the TSO to honour his memory.

The first half was Maurice Ravel’s enormously popular Boléro.  I don’t imagine any of you are strangers to this tune.

      1. Maurice Ravel - Boléro

I first ran across it in late adolescence, in the context of a largely forgettable movie starring the ineffably talentless Mary Cathleen Collins, a.k.a. Bo Derek.

Written in 1928, Boléro was part of a ballet commissioned by dancer Ida Rubenstein.  Composer Ravel envisioned the piece being used in a romantic rendezvous between one of the women and a toreador.  The impassioned pair are eventually discovered by the woman’s lover, and murderous mayhem ensues.  But Rubinstein’s choreographer decided to chuck Ravel’s idea out the window and, instead, set it in a Spanish inn.  A woman table dances—well, dances atop a table—surrounded by men who become more ebullient and frisky.  Eventually they get so riled up that knives come out and a brawl erupts.  Although it’s entirely divorced from the original context today, it’s still a very captivating piece.

Then there’s the intermission, of course, and the usual TSO SOPs (standard operating procedures) apply: pre-order your drinks when you first arrive, prior to the show.  They’ll be waiting for you at intermission and you get to avoid the giant lineup.  Sad to say that the bar dropped one of its single-malts last year and now offers a single scotch, Talisker.  I happen to like Talisker, but there ought to be more variety.  This isn’t the Peel Pub and we’re not looking for cheap beer; people are dropping a few hundred bucks on a single concert and several thousand over the course of the season.  Ye gods, give me a blasted range of malts.

Carl Orff’s magnum opus Carmina Burana comprised the second half.  Most people immediately think of O Fortuna—which bookends the entire effort—but the whole hour-long work actually has twenty-five distinct songs.  Many of which are decidedly not safe for work.

      2. Carl Orff - O Fortuna

The original Carmina Burana (“Songs of Beuern”) is a collection of 13th century manuscripts, primarily songs and religious plays.  They were discovered in 1803 and published decades later in 1847.  German composer Carl Orff encountered them in 1935, and set many of the pieces to music.  TSO’s programme speculates that the 13th century texts were the work of “wandering scholars and defrocked priests”.  I couldn’t figure out why TSO was sure the mediæval authors were defrocked priests, but that becomes apparent in the later sections.

The fact is that an awful lot of Carmina Burana revolves around getting drunk and bangin’ chicks.  In taberna quando sumus (“When we are in the tavern” – listen / lyrics) is more or less the Latin version of Rosamunde (a.k.a. “Roll Out The Barrell”).  Pardon me for a sec while I sing along with the Hacker-Pschorr dudes.

Then there’s the cheesecake factor.  Circa mea pectora (“In my heart” – listen / lyrics) is the touching story of a guy who dearly loves his girlfriend Mandaliet, and desperately wants to get into her pants.  Don’t take my word for it, check out the lyrics.  Wonderful arrangement and choral accompaniment nonetheless.  Si puer cum puellula (“If a boy with a girl” – listen / lyrics) continues on in a similar vein.  The real hilarity, though, is Tempus est iocundum (“This is the joyful time” – listen / lyrics).  The TSO translates some of the text thus:

My virginity
makes me frisky;
my simplicity
Holds me back.
Oh! Oh! Oh! etc.

But what really puts it over the top is that composer Orff orchestrated this particular piece for soprano and baritone soloists, a chorus, and… a children’s choir.  All righty then!  I’m not suggesting anyone needs to get into politically-correct prudery over it, but try and imagine today’s composers getting away with such stunts.  And it’s a rollicking good tune as long as you aren’t thinking too hard about the content.

Speaking of soloists, this performance featured some pretty good talent.  Soprano Simona Šaturová did some excellent work throughout, as did baritone Hugh Russell, a frequent TSO guest soloist.  And although the soprano and especially baritone do the lion’s share of the work, I’d be remiss if I did not mention contratenor Daniel Taylor.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a contratenor before, but now I’m thoroughly impressed; Taylor has outstanding tone and pitch control.  Contratenors occupy the middle range of the vocal scale, but are well on the high side for a man; high-pitched but mellifluous and melodic like an female alto (or contralto).  And that quality is on full display in Olim lacus colueram (“Once I lived on lakes”).

The song is a requiem by a (literally) roasted swan, who isn’t pleased about his new role on the rotisserie.  Although the thematic conceit is faintly ridiculous—like a Chicken McNugget mourning his deep-fried, dipped-in-barbecue-sauce fate—Orff’s orchestration and Taylor’s voice give it a haunting, otherworldy quality.  Here’s an ordinary tenor singing Olim lacus colueram — not bad, but a really good contratenor takes it to a whole new level.

UPDATE: Stupidly I forgot to mention the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus, without whose superlative talents this work must surely suffer.

In summary I was pretty pleased with the musical talent on display for opening night, and I learned an awful lot about both Boléro and Carmina Burana via TSO’s excellent programme notes.  It’s too bad certain pieces (like O Fortuna) get overplayed and wasted shilling the lousiest beer on the planet.

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