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MUSIC : 'Carmina': Medieval Hit Is a Wheel of Fortune

May 09, 1991|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles covers music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition.

The chances of making a popular classical music piece out of some medieval manuscripts seem about nil, right?

Well, Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," which is based on 13th-Century manuscripts found in a German monastery, is about as popular as classical music gets.

A recent record guide lists 21 recordings of the work, and that's just what's currently available. Among the deleted recordings, count one made by Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Cologne Radio Symphony in the late 1950s, which was recorded "under the personal supervision of the composer" and therefore presumably received his imprimatur.

What makes it such a hit?

"It has a contagious rhythmic quality to it," says Pacific Symphony music director Carl St. Clair, who will conduct the work today at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

"Also, because it's strophic--with verse after verse after verse--it allows the audience to hear the music more than once, with, of course, different texts. This allows it to be more attainable and enjoyable."

Orff created the work, subtitled "Profane songs for singers and vocal chorus with instruments and magical pictures," in 1935-36, when he was initiating a deliberate effort to simplify his style in order to reach a broader audience.

Incidentally, the "magical pictures" referred to the composer's plan to stage the work with dancers and scenery. This was how it was done at the premiere in Frankfurt in 1937, but most later performances have presented it simply as a concert piece.

The composer picked some 25 poems from the approximately 200 written by anonymous disaffected and bawdy wondering scholars found at the Benediktbeuern monastery in the Bavarian Alps.

He organized the poems into three large sections, entitled "In Springtime," "In the Tavern" and "The Court of Love," and bracketed the whole with the chorus "Fortune, Empress of the World," which extols the medieval notion of fate as a rotating wheel. Don't bother to envy whomever is on top now, the poem says, because the wheel will rotate and bring them down. Correspondingly, whoever is at the bottom now may rise to the top.

St. Clair says that the sheer quantity of the material is one of the problems in conducting the work. "Twenty-five sections can feel pretty long," he says. "So one of the goals of the performance is to try to make it seem like a large piece that has three sections instead of 25.

"Another of the hard things about the piece is the text itself," he adds. "It's in Latin and old German and old French and has many words. The words change very quickly, and so it's a lot for the chorus."

Still, St. Clair says, "It's a piece that everyone enjoys performing and listening to. I wouldn't say it's easy to conduct, I wouldn't say it's hard. I think it's fun to conduct."

What: Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana."

When: Thursday, May 9, at 8 p.m.

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: One block east of South Coast Plaza shopping center.

Wherewithal: $10 to $33.

Where to Call: (714) 474-2109.

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