Few choral works are as thrilling to hear live as Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The German composer’s cantata of secular medieval songs — about fate’s unpredictability, the pleasures and perils of lust, and other timeless topics — is set to driving rhythms and powerfully simple melodies. The work was a hit with the Nazis when it was first performed in 1937, and continues to pack concert halls and exhilarate audiences.
Singers can’t resist it, either, according to Burlington Choral Society baritone Ryan Goslin, who will perform it with the group this Saturday evening in BCS’ 35th anniversary concert. “Everybody loves it. People are coming out of the woodwork to sing it,” notes the Burlington dentist and Underhill resident. Goslin’s wife, Kristina, also sings in the chorus, and even their three children have caught the bug. “It’s kind of fun hearing a 6-year-old whistling to Carmina Burana,” Goslin says.
The dramatic piece is a fitting choice for music director David Neiweem’s final concert with the community choir he’s led for 17 years. The BCS performed Carmina Burana seven years ago under his baton, but this time Neiweem is amplifying the drama. The 100-member BCS will be joined by the 60-member University of Vermont Concert Choir, which Neiweem also directs, and the Essex Children’s Choir. Of the latter, he jokes, “They’re singing in Latin, fortunately, so they don’t know what they’re singing.”
The songs’ lyrics are not exactly X-rated, but they do address, as Goslin puts it, “sex, alcohol, debauchery — all the fun topics.” Orff selected Carmina Burana’s 24 bawdy Latin poems from among 254 compiled in a medieval manuscript of the same name. Penned in 1230, it lay dormant in a monastery in southern Germany until being rediscovered in 1803.
Orff’s modern, rhythmic take on the medieval text calls for a full symphonic orchestra with five percussionists — an unusually high number. Saturday’s performance will have it all, thanks in part to an innovative fundraising initiative called Adopt an Orchestra. Spearheaded two years ago by BCS board president Allan Day, a bass in the choir for 20 years, the initiative invites people to sponsor an orchestra member, at the cost of $340 per performance. To Day’s surprise, the biggest response has come from BCS singers themselves, who have so far given more than $10,000.
The BCS’ longtime leader leaves the chorus in good stead, but he’ll be missed. Day describes Neiweem as “very emotionally involved in the production of the music. He has choirs like people have children,” he adds.
Neiweem explains, “When I was told that I was in my 17th season, I realized that, like a teenaged child, I needed to move out. I’ve been with that group since I was a young man. Now I’m an old man.” (He’s 58.) “If there’s anything else I want to do, I need to do it now.”
One idea: starting a first-generation American chorus, for Burlington middle schoolers from immigrant and refugee families. Neiweem envisions passing on his love of choral music to younger generations and teaching social skills through participating in a choir.
Meanwhile, he says, he’s grateful his last BCS concert is bringing together 80-year-olds, undergraduates and children. It’s an apt way to honor Orff’s work, which, Neiweem says, is “such an unabashedly human creation.”