The Classical Beat | ‘Carmina Burana’ launches KC Ballet’s season

Fatalistic work by Carl Orff based on Middle Ages poems also was caught in the web of Nazi criticism.

10/04/2012 12:58 PM

05/16/2014 7:53 PM

Fate. It’s not such a popular concept anymore.

In 21st-century America, we like to think we are captains of our destiny, that we determine the outcome of our lives. But in the Middle Ages when everyone — princes, priests and peasants — was locked in a rigid, feudal class structure, people had a different opinion. It seemed that each person was born with a fate from which there was no escape.

The poetry of “Carmina Burana,” which dates from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, expresses this fatalistic viewpoint. Nevertheless, it says something about our self-determined era that Carl Orff’s scenic cantata based on these Medieval poems has become one of the most popular classical works.

The Kansas City Ballet will present a fully staged and costumed “Carmina Burana,” just as Orff intended, for six performances beginning at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 12 in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre. The ballet’s season-opening program also includes two shorter works — “End of Time,” with choreography by Ben Stevenson and music by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and “Mercury,” choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett to music by Franz Joseph Haydn.

Orff had the unfortunate fate of living and composing in Germany when Adolf Hitler was taking the whole world for a spin on the wheel of fortune.

From all indications Orff was not sympathetic to Nazi ideology, but like Richard Strauss, Orff kept his true feelings to himself so he could maintain his career.

“Carmina Burana” was first performed in 1937 in Frankfurt, and was not an immediate hit with the Nazis. Indeed, after its premiere, the Nazi musicologist Hans Gerigk wrote critically of the work’s “mistaken return to primitive elements of instrumentalism and a foreign emphasis on rhythmic formulae.”

But Orff had friends in high Nazi places who allowed the work to be performed often enough for it to become popular. Soon the Nazis embraced it, and propagandist Joseph Goebbels offered a mostly positive assessment: “ ‘Carmina Burana’ exhibits exquisite beauty, and if we could get him (Orff) to do something about his lyrics, his music would certainly be very promising.” Goebbels, apparently, was put off by the work’s eroticism.

“Carmina Burana” has been criticized not only for its links to Nazism but also for what some consider its simplistic music. The pounding rhythm certainly gives the work its popular appeal, but there is no complex harmony or polyphony, some critics assert.

“I don’t agree,” Ramona Pansegrau, music director of the Kansas City Ballet, said in a recent interview. “I don’t think it’s simplistic at all. He’s taking texts from writings of monks, and it’s in German, it’s in Latin, sorting it all out and making it cohesive.

“If you go in deeper, it definitely is challenging musically. There are mixed meters — sometimes the orchestra itself is playing in two different meters at the same time, instruments playing at the edges of their ranges. The roasted swan bassoon solo is every bit as difficult as the opening of ‘Rite of Spring.’ Everybody’s got a challenge here.”

Toni Pimble, artistic director and co-founder of the Eugene Ballet in Oregon, says that her choreography for the work is also far from simple. The swan’s song in the tavern scene was a challenge.

“The swan is singing and complaining about being roasted on the spit. So my concept for that was to create a spit and have a dancer who does all these machinations while wearing a belt attached to the spit. So that was a challenging piece to choreograph.

“Apparently it’s a challenging piece to perform, too, because you have to be able to spin on a spit and not get dizzy, so not everyone can do it,” she said with a chuckle.

“Toni Pimble is incredibly musical,” Pansegrau said. “She worked from the score, she translated all the texts, the movement mirrors what is being said in the text. And she was very accurate and very careful with all of that. What’s happening on stage isn’t a literal translation of the text, but you can see where it comes from, and it comes from her research and work. It all holds together very well. The dancers look terrific in it.”

Pimble, who grew up in England and studied as a girl at the renowned Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmigham, originally choreographed “Carmina Burana” for the Eugene Ballet in 1993.

“It’s a great piece of theater and a great piece to dance,” Pimble said. “Very rhythmic. It’s a big piece in the sense that it has a lot of components to it, not just dances but also the chorus and the orchestra and a children’s chorus plus the soprano, tenor and baritone soloists.”

Those sprawling components and the work’s epic proportions are well contained in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre’s large space.

“When we decided we wanted to do it,” Pansegrau said, “we had to speak with the Kauffman Center because the only thing that I could figure out that would work for the chorus is to put them in the side boxes beside the stage because there’s no room in the pit, obviously, and with choreography you can’t put them on stage.

“The Kauffman agreed to pull those boxes from sale for us, so I’m going to have the chorus stacked to the ceiling on both sides of the stage. They’ll be basically out in the audience so the sound should be huge.”

Pansegrau said that one word best describes Orff’s music: “Visceral. The driving rhythms, the way it’s orchestrated, you feel it in your gut. It’s very obviously exciting. The opening tune is the one everybody knows, but there’s so much more to it than that.

“I really enjoy the way it’s divided into sections, and each one of the sections is different. In the final section, ‘The Court of Love,’ suddenly you have the children’s choir, it’s the first time you’ve heard it. So all the way through there are new things being added, new sound effects.

“You’ve got contrast, you’ve got constant new sounds. Six percussionists. I mean, it’s enormous. But on top of that, sometimes it’s just two instruments together with maybe the baritone soloist singing. So you have everything, and that’s what I like, the huge contrasts.”

Besides the powerful music, Pimble was inspired by the text.

“I was drawn to the poetry and the way that Carl Orff used the poetry to speak to the plight of humanity and all of the things that we as human beings experience,” Pimble said. “He chose the poems so well to create not a narrative but a sense of narrative. It talks about the passions of life.

“The section called ‘In the Tavern’ talks about being drawn into a wayward type of life, where you just throw your life away. It’s all the things that people experience in life and the paths that people choose, either constructive or destructive.”

“Carmina Burana” also celebrates eroticism as a way at least to enjoy our time on Earth as the wheel of fate spins. It’s surprising that these sensual texts were written by monks, “little, randy monks,” as Pansegrau calls them.

“Yes, definitely, there are some very suggestive lines, which was not unusual in the 11th and 12th centuries,” Pimble said. “Even St. Hildegard von Bingen wrote quite a bit of sacred music that had sexual overtones. Toward the end of ‘Carmina’ there’s a hymn to Venus, so I think you can definitely walk away with the message that erotic love provides some meaning to life. Even though the work does return full circle to ‘O Fortuna.’ Ultimately there’s no escaping fate and we all come to the same end.”

The medieval flavor of “Carmina Burana” will be conveyed through the sets and costumes.

“It’s a very simple set,” Pimble said. “It has a wheel and we do have a dancer on the wheel, so there are some literal visual images. We have costumes that are medieval, long skirts and bodices for the women and tunics and tights for the men.

“I put all the women in these long white skirts with the long sleeves that you often see in the 13th and 14th centuries before the Renaissance period. They’re very light silk so they can really dance in them. And the chorus behind them is in darker, richer colors, so it really helps the dancers to pop out.”

Nowadays “Carmina Burana” is almost always performed as a cantata in concert dress, as it will be by the Kansas City Symphony in November, but Orff intended it to be fully staged with sets, costumes and choreography.

It was the first of a trilogy of cantatas that Orff wanted staged, the other two being “Catulli Carmina” (“Songs of Catullus”) and “Trionfo di Afrodite” (“The Triumph of Aphrodite”).

“I heard ‘Aphrodite’ once,” Pansegrau said. “It’s terrible. And with ‘Catulli,’ I was bored out of my mind. He hit it right on the head with the first in the triptych.

“ ‘Carmina Burana is one of a kind. It’s unmistakable. You hear the first note, which is basically a big timpani blast, and you know what it is. It’s pretty phenomenal. I think this is a wonderful opportunity for the audience to see the work performed the way it was meant to be heard and seen. And the opportunity is getting rare to have all of these live forces come together to make that happen.”

Ballet Folklórico de México

Ballet Folkórico de Mexico has been stirring the blood of music and dance lovers since 1952. The company’s fiery and passionate performances, rooted in Mexican folklore and often performed barefoot, have an earthy, primal quality that is totally missing from our mass-produced, mass-market pop culture. The Harriman-Jewell Series will present the troupe at 8 p.m. Friday at Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets, call 816-415-5025 or go to

HJSeries.org

.

Lincoln Center players

The Friends of Chamber Music presents an evening of varied chamber music with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and pianist Jeremy Denk at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln will be bringing a string trio, clarinetist and horn player to join Denk for some warming Romantic music by Johannes Brahms, Ernst von Dohnányi and Max Bruch.

With degrees from Oberlin College in piano and chemistry, a master’s degree from Indiana University and a doctorate in piano performance from Juilliard, Denk is one smart cookie. He also has a very popular blog that deals with music, performance and everything under the sun called Think Denk. You can check it out at . For tickets, call 816-561-9999 or go to

ChamberMusic.org

.

Chinese National Circus

The Chinese circus has a long and glorious history that goes back to the earliest dynasties. The company’s acrobatics, fire-breathing, contortionism, tightrope walking and dazzling martial arts displays have a “wow” factor that, frankly, I prefer to the slick and artsy “cirques” that have become so popular.

The National Circus of the People’s Republic of China, the gold standard of Chinese circuses, will perform at 8 p.m. Friday at Yardley Hall, Johnson County Community College.

For tickets, call 913-469-4445 or go to

JCCC.edu/theseries.

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