The vernal joys, swan-roasting pathos, rock ‘n’ roll energy and sexual undertow of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” will push the stage of the Wharton Center’s Cobb Great Hall to the limit Friday (Nov. 10).
There will be just enough room for more than 250 Michigan State University choristers, a full-sized Lansing Symphony Orchestra, two grand pianos and a massive battery of percussion, including three glockenspiels — metallic mallet instruments that ring in your ears like a village full of church bells on Sunday morning.
“We just have to take every nook and cranny and put a person in it — or a glockenspiel,” LSO maestro Timothy Muffitt cracked.
Don’t sleep on those glockenspiels. In “Carmina Burana,” they give a new twist to the term “G-spot.”
In accordance with the medieval texts of “Carmina Burana,” the two young lovers at the center of Orff’s vast musical canvas finally come together after a rocking hour of frolicking, boozing and the occasional wail of agony.
Just before the end, the glockenspiels hurl a wall-to-wall spasm of glitter over a thundering Niagara of orchestral and choral chaos — the sonic equivalent of a shuddering, body-and-soul orgasm.
“It totally is,” Muffitt said. “I’m sure that was the intent.”
Clangorous climax notwithstanding, human voices are at the core of “Carmina Burana,” from the University Chorale, directed by Sandra Snow, to the State Singers and Choral Union, directed by Jonathan Reed, and three world-class vocal soloists: soprano Penelope Shumate, tenor David Shaler and baritone Babatunde Akinboboye, a Nigerian-American singer who’s also a big hip-hop fan.
Akinboboye is well-known for his “Hip Hopera” videos, in which he drives around town singing opera arias, full throttle, to hip-hop beats.
Check out his irresistible 2018 mashup of “Largo al Factotum,” the famous aria from Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” with the instrumental track from rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.”
In “Carmina Burana,” Akinboboye sings four major arias that give him plenty of room to swagger, sulk, seduce and soar. He has a special love for his first big aria, “Estuans Interius” (“Burning Inside”).
“It has a kind of hip-hop energy to it,” he said. “It’s so much fun to sing, to hear, to be a part of.”
Akinboboye did a “Hip Hopera” version of the aria, and it’s not a stretch at all.
“‘Carmina Burana’ is one of my favorite pieces,” he said. “It’s just somehow so novel, still today — the choices of rhythms and language and topic. It’s just so exciting and rebellious, the rock ‘n’ roll song of its time.”
He gets to “sing drunk” in another aria, “Ego sum abbas” (“I am the abbot of Cockaigne”).
“It’s always fun to play a character in an altered state onstage,” he said. “It feels like a break from work. We’re on the 50-minute break, just hanging out.”
Many singers would find it daunting to take command on such a crowded platform, but Akinboboye has his own formula: practice like mad, then “forget it when I get onstage.”
“Practice is for developing the muscle memory to sing healthfully, knowing it will carry across the stage, past the orchestra and into the house,” he said. “Once I’ve developed all that muscle memory, when I’m on stage with 300 people and watching the maestro, I become the storyteller, and I can just play.”
He relishes singing out the ancient and untranslatable expletive “wafna” — often translated as “woe” in the concert brochure but closer in spirit to “fuck you,” according to some scholars — on a high note, at maximum volume.
“It feels almost like I’m going back in time to when that was actually a swear word, and I’m getting to swear at the top of my lungs,” he said.
The text is a shocker to this day. Midway through the music, a hapless swan roasting on a spit recalls high times cruising on the lake. “I see the teeth coming,” he wails.
The basic human task of savoring the joys of life before the wheel of fate grinds us into powder is nothing to mess with.
Muffitt explained that Orff had sophisticated composing chops, much like 20th-century counterparts such as Prokofiev, Copland, Stravinsky and Britten. You can hear some unearthly modern touches in the “Roasting Swan” song, for instance.
But he dipped into that toolbox sparingly for “Carmina Burana.” As seemingly zillions of imitative film scores and TV commercials attest, Orff matched the earthy ancient texts with a direct, elemental musical style that sounds more like naughty medieval dances than knotty modern symphonies, tone poems and whatnot. Maybe that’s why everyone seems to dig it and pop culture can’t stop referencing its unique language.
“All this music is strophic, like a pop song,” Muffitt said. “Strophic” describes music that’s built on repeating stanzas or verses. “He’s elemental in form but steps out in terms of the content.”
Muffitt summed it up as “a perfect storm in music.”
“You have these timeless texts that are so grounded in the human experience, and we knew that this needed to be mainlined. We’re going to put this full throttle, not dance around it, and come right at the listener.”
It will take some powerful music to share the bill with “Carmina Burana,” but Muffitt is confident that flutist and composer Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja: Anthem of Unity,” Friday’s opener, will do the job.
Many music lovers know Coleman as the founder of a fabulous, poly-stylistic chamber group, Imani Winds.
The orchestral version of “Umoja” dates only to 2019, but it’s already in frequent play across the world. It begins with the glassy, floating sound of a bowed vibraphone and goes through many marvelous metamorphoses. Muffitt called it, “One of those incredible gifts our current composers have given us.”
“I just love the journey of this piece, the unbridled joy at the end,” he said. “But there’s strife and challenge and hardship on the way before we get to that point. It’s a climb with a magnificent view.”
Muffitt snuck the last four minutes of the work into last year’s Holiday Pops concert.
“It comes out of the Kwanzaa tradition,” he explained. “So, it was seasonal that way, and it was also so full of warmth and joy, that feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood, that I thought it was fitting for the Holiday Pops and slipped it in there.”
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