BU Takes Stage at Symphony Hall Tonight
Orchestra, Chorus perform Orff’s Carmina Burana
German composer Carl Orff’s iconic 1936 choral work Carmina Burana is a lush, dramatic crowd-pleaser that is increasingly cannibalized by TV and Hollywood for its ability to raise goose bumps. The scenic cantata, a many-textured weave of 24 themes inspired by a trove of 13th-century poems, found its way into American concert repertoire thanks in part to the BU Symphony Orchestra and the BU Symphonic Chorus.
It was the College of Fine Arts that presented Carmina Burana’s East Coast premiere in 1954 under the direction of Leopold Stokowski, one of the 20th century’s renowned conductors. Tonight, 58 years later to the day, at Boston’s Symphony Hall, the orchestra and chorus—conducted by David Hoose—will reprise Orff’s masterpiece, along with a work by Edgard Varèse and the Boston premiere of Percy Grainger’s demanding, often rambunctious The Warriors.
“Most people are familiar with the opening movement of Carmina Burana through commercials and movies,” says soloist Lynn Eustis, a CFA associate professor of music, who has sung the cantata numerous times since 1999 and recorded a version in 2003. The work “is a joyous celebration of nature in its most primitive forms. The beauty of the quieter moments will probably surprise audience members.”
The performance also features the spirited voices of the Boston Children’s Chorus. The soloists, tenor Christopher MacRae (CFA’17) and baritone James Demler, a CFA assistant professor of music, perform “at the extremes of their vocal ranges,” says Eustis, who joined the CFA faculty this fall. One of Eustis’ doctoral students, MacRae transferred to BU with her from the University of North Texas. Eustis made her Carnegie Hall debut in Mozart’s Vesparae de Dominica in March 2010, but this is her first Symphony Hall performance.
Sometimes performed in costume, Carmina “is ritualistic theater, both Asian and Greek, with scenes like frozen poses,” says Hoose, a CFA professor of music and director of orchestral activities. “O, Fortuna,” the more familiar introductory section, “evokes the ever-fickle nature of fate, and Orff’s shifts from joy to anger, from optimism to despair,” injected with meditations on nature, drinking, and lust, culminate in a finale in which the work comes full circle, Hoose explains. Created in two versions, a smaller one as well as the full-orchestra “extravaganza” audiences will hear tonight, the work earned enduring fame for a composer Hoose refers to as “a troubling mystery.” Carmina Burana is a wild ride, by turns hypnotic and disturbing, with words the conductor describes in his notes as “unabashedly hedonistic” and “filled with eroticism that was simply pornographic” to Nazi party officials as Germany began to embrace the work after its 1937 premiere.
The evening’s other two orchestral works are no less compelling. In his program notes, Hoose recalls that when he first experienced Edgard Varèse’s Hyperprism as a freshman music student, it “rattled my musical horizons. It didn’t breathe like any music I know. It convulsed and exploded into different shapes or groups of sounds.” In Hyperprism, Varèse, a French-born composer who died in 1965, created an often violent, thunderous brew heavy on brass, along with flutes sounding off in extreme registers, and 10 percussionists playing—in addition to drums—a whimsical range of instruments, including sleigh bells, an Indian drum, a slapstick, Chinese blocks, a tam-tam, and a siren.
Also inventively scored is The Warriors, by the prolific Australian-born composer Percy Aldridge Grainger. Like Varèse, Grainger spent much of his career in the United States. Written early in the 20th century and believed by some scholars to be his response to World War I, the piece is described by Hoose as “thrilling and unpredictable,” with the music jumping freely “from the goofy to the touching.” That The Warriors is having its Boston premiere nearly a century after Grainger composed it isn’t that surprising considering its instrumentations, Hoose says of the rarely performed score. It’s a tribute to BU’s abundance of talent that the orchestra, along with an off-stage band, could meet Grainger’s dizzying requirements, which include two bassoons, a contrabassoon, six horns, and four trumpets onstage, as well as an offstage component of two trumpets, two horns, two trombones, and a full string section. Then there’s the percussion: two harps and a variety of pitched instruments, including a xylophone, a glockenspiel, a steel and wooden marimba, bells, and chimes, along with a wood block and castanets. But The Warriors’ demanding instrumentation also calls for six to nine pianos. Tonight’s performance features only three.
It promises to be a resounding, memorable night at Symphony Hall, the first of CFA’s two annual performances at what is considered to be one of the world’s great concert halls. The second performance is scheduled for April 9. Tonight’s concert will be webcast live on the CFA School of Music website and will be rebroadcast on the its Virtual Concert Hall.
The Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus concert is tonight, Monday, November 19, at 8 p.m., at Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Ave., Boston. Tickets are $25 for general admission; student rush tickets are $10, available at the door today from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Members of the BU community may get one free ticket at the door on the day of the performance. Purchase tickets here or call 617-262-1200.