Of Epic Proportions: The Carmina Burana Choral Project

Classic Arts Features   Of Epic Proportions: The Carmina Burana Choral Project
It is nothing short of spectacular: 400 student singers,the Orchestra of St. Luke's, a trio of esteemed vocalists,three world premieres, newly commissioned projections, and Carl Orff's seminal Carmina Burana: all in one concert.

The scope of The Carmina Burana Choral Project is equally ambitious: to nurture and showcase exemplary musicianship, elevating student performance to a professional level and creating transformational experiences for all involved.

Conductor David Robertson, who leads the culminating event on February 5, recently discussed the breadth of this project and its lasting impact.

What is it like to prepare young performers for a project like this?

Music is transformative, and part of what makes it transformative for younger performers is the sense that they like to participate in every aspect of music. They bring a burning, enthusiastic desire. Whenever you’re preparing for a project with young performers, the main thing you need to concentrate on is giving them enough time to absorb new ideas, process them, and then make them their own. And that’s the tremendous thing for me, to see this happen and to see all of these things come together in a performance that is both spellbinding and white-hot exciting.

What makes Carmina Burana a great piece for students?

This is a particularly apt work for young performers because of its rhythmic clarity. The students can immediately hear when something isn’t right. Certain types of pieces are much more merciful, but Carmina Burana is not at all like that. There are moments where the entire group has to stop as one voice, and then times at which you need to change from a very soft dynamic to a very loud dynamic and then go right back to the soft. These are things that we all individually can do, but suddenly becoming part of a collective—where not only are you responsible for your own part, but you have the responsibility to make sure that you are entirely connected with everyone else—is a very powerful and important metaphor for life.

And what about it topically resonates with students?

High school students tend to be the ones who are most aware of the environment around them. The piece really parallels the blossoming of the human spirit right when it reaches adolescence. I think there is a lot that they can really connect to on an emotional and visceral level. And what I hope is that by singing about these experiences that are very real and very new and exciting to them in Middle High German and Old French from 500 and 600 years ago, they’ll see the kind of continuity that links all of us together in this human experience.

Do you find that most everyone— even young performers—quickly recognize the piece?

It’s often referred to as “the most famous piece of classical music that you don’t know you know.” Whereas I think the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth—“bum-bum-bum-baa”—is very well known, I think “O Fortuna” in Carmina Burana probably surpasses even that. It’s been used in everything from beer and car commercials to movie scores, and it’s the sort of piece that absolutely galvanizes audiences into this rapt attention that Or+ manages to keep going for the entire hour that the piece lasts.

What is it like to combine forces with professional and amateur—in this case, student—musicians?

I’m looking forward to the moment where we bring the non-professional musicians and the professional musicians together because that’s always a fascinating experience. From the point of view of the kids, one of the things that they find when they work with an ensemble like the Orchestra of St. Luke’s is the constant 360-degree listening within the ensemble. For example, when one section has a certain note duration, they can all somehow—as if by magic— adjust and find the communal length. And this is one of the really fun things to watch, because there’s kind of mutual admiration that takes hold—a communal meeting place that is the love of music. What’s appealing about this to you?

I like projects that continually push me a little bit further. There are those of us who like the aspect of the unknown. In this project, these are musicians with whom I’ve never worked before, and they are people who will inevitably bring lots of di&erent qualities and viewpoints to the piece. By doing that, they’ll actually reveal to me all sorts of things that I don’t yet know about the work. This voyage of discovery—this interaction with other people—is what I find most interesting.


Thomas Cabaniss, a composer and an advisor at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, worked with three teenage composers who created works inspired by Orff’s masterpiece as part of The Carmina Burana Choral Project. These pieces will be premiered on the first half of the concert.

What is it about Carmina Burana that speaks to young musicians?

It is tempting to think that high school musicians might be inspired by the history of Carmina Burana, or by its use of ancient texts, or even by the ways that its orchestral textures have been borrowed by Hollywood film composers for the movies. But it’s probably more accurate to say that young musicians—just like their older counterparts—are thrilled by the visceral impact.

What elements of Carmina Burana inspired the student composers?

David Robertson was the master teacher of this project. He set out the conditions of the commission: a five to seven minute piece for chorus and orchestra with a text about fate and fortune. He also suggested they take a cue from two main musical features of Carmina Burana: ostinato (a recurring and unifying pattern in the music) and hocketing (where a melody is played or sung in alternation).

How do the students’ pieces and musical philosophies vary?

It’s hard to pin down teenagers on their still-developing philosophies, but you will definitely hear three distinct compositional voices.

Gabriel Smallwood, 14, jumps into the ring with Or-, setting a “Dies Irae” that wears all of its emotions on its sleeve. Gabe admires film music and writes with an innate sense of drama combined with a love of counterpoint and Handelian choral writing.

Thomas Reeves, 17, draws upon his dual Japanese-American heritage to set “A Man’s Life,” an ancient Japanese poem about the acceptance of fate. His setting is serene and spacious with a softspoken maturity that belies his age.

Anthony Constantino, 17, uses cluster chords and driving rhythms to set “Thus It Was,” a poem by Dag Hammarskjöld that embraces the notion of fate. His music is an energetic and searing exploration of the poem’s meditation on a future unknown.


Sunday, February 5 3 PM

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

The Carmina Burana Choral Project

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