Colossal “Carmina Burana” closes Madison Symphony season

In the world of classical music, sometimes size does matter. When it comes to sheer musical scale, few pieces can compete with Carl Orff’s 24-movement cantata Carmina Burana, which will close the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s 2015–16 season later this month.

“With its driving rhythms and lyrical opulence, Carmina Burana has become one of classical music’s most popular treasures,” writes MSO maestro John DeMain on the orchestra’s website.

What DeMain neglects to mention is the number of musicians required to give this early 20th-century work its due. From its most familiar movement, the opening “O Fortuna,” to its raucous drinking and love songs, the 59-minute composition commands a cadre of players and singers rarely matched in the classical canon.

How big is big? MSO’s 91 musicians under DeMain’s direction will be joined on Madison’s Overture Hall stage by 140 volunteer members of the Madison Symphony Chorus led by Beverly Taylor. Add to that the roughly 80 members from the Madison Youth Choirs’ Boychoir, under Michael Ross’s direction, and soloists soprano Jeni Houser, tenor Thomas Leighton and baritone Keith Phares, and the musician roster blossoms to well over 300 artists, quite a company for what is essentially a musically simple work.

“It’s wonderfully lyrical and sounds great, but I wouldn’t say it’s a walk in the park,” says DeMain, who has closed each of his past 22 MSO seasons with a work of similar scope and magnitude. “In the end, it all comes together nicely.”

DeMain has paired Orff’s work with The Pines of Rome, a more impressionistic work composed in 1923 and 1924 by Ottorino Respighi. In the conductor’s mind, the tone poem both complements and contrasts Orff’s 1935–36 composition, which comes with its own interesting backstory.

Orff based his work on 12th and 13th century poetry written in Church Latin and Medieval German found compiled at the Benedictine monastery in Benediktbeuern, south of the composer’s hometown of Munich. Orff built the composition around 24 of the poems to create a “secular cantata” of raucous drinking songs, courtly and bawdy love poems, and humorous stories to create Carmina Burana, literally “Songs of Beurn.”

The work’s Germanic “volk” roots and bombastic score eventually made Orff a favorite among the Nazi regime rising to power in the 1930s, allowing the composer to continue his career during the war while many of his contemporaries were forced to flee to America.

Orff was never a party member and, in fact, had been friends with academician Kurt Huber, a leading voice in Germany’s White Rose resistance movement. The composer distanced himself for professional reasons from Huber, who the Nazis eventually arrested, tried and executed by guillotine in 1943. After World War II, Orff rehabilitated his reputation by reminding critics of his ties to Huber, dodging criticism for Nazi accommodation.

For all its musical sturm und drang, Orff’s composition is surprisingly fundamental in its construction, according to DeMain. The cantata lacks polyphony (the combination of differing melodies that harmonize with each other), and counterpoint (deliberately playing polyphonous phrases with different rhythms simultaneously). But that very simplicity may account for the work’s enormous popularity.

“The melodic nature of the choral writing and sheer energy that comes out of the work gives it a primitive tonality,” DeMain says. “Orff’s compositional vocabulary is more vertical than horizontal and it’s not a difficult piece for the orchestra to play.”

Vocal performers face a more daunting challenge, according to Taylor. While MSO members may first look at the score the Monday before the performance, DeMain says, the choristers have already been practicing for several months.

“It’s a big enough project, but not as difficult as some of the things we’ve done,” Taylor says. “The songs are very catchy and easy to learn and, while there is a lot of text in dialect German and Latin, there aren’t too many harmonic variations.”

Taylor notes that last season’s production of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was much more difficult even though the choral section lasted just 20 minutes. She anticipates even greater challenges for her singers in performing Brahms’ “Requiem,” which will serve as next year’s season finale.

Carmina Burana is fun to sing and easy to learn, almost like a musical comedy,” Taylor explains. “It’s raucous, good humored with rhythms that are really dense, and exuberance that draws listeners along with it.”

Orff’s compositional style also makes learning the choral pieces easier for the singers and appreciating the composition itself more fulfilling for the audience, she adds.

“For Orff, fast is good, loud is better and fast and loud are the best of all,” Taylor says. “Each verse gets a little faster and a little louder and the rhythms are very dance-y. In the end, this is a real toe-tapper.”

DeMain agrees, especially when it comes to the work’s simpler musical structure and primitive tonality, both of which make Carmina Burana more accessible to the average listener.

“We’re always reaching out to bring more people to the symphony and this is one of those pieces that does that,” he adds. “This piece has the potential to do big box office for us.”

Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and Ottorino Respighi’s The Pines of Rome April 29 to May 1 at Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St. Tickets run $16 to $85 and can be purchased at 608-258-4141 or

Come “Out” at MSO Closer

The Madison Symphony Orchestra will celebrate the Capital City’s LGBT community and the close of its 2015–16 season April 30 with its fifth annual “Out at the Symphony” celebration.

In addition to enjoying MSO’s rendition of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome and Orff’s Carmina Burana, attendees are invited to an exclusive afterparty at Overture Center’s Promenade Lounge that will feature food, drink and music.

Combined tickets for the concert and after-party are $40 for mezzanine-level seats and $60 for orchestra seats and can only be purchased through the MSO website at The deadline for purchasing tickets is Thursday, April 28, at midnight.