Choir’s bawdy recital ‘a bold statement to the world’

You may be unfamiliar with Carl Orff and his best-known work,Carmina Burana,a cantata that premiered in Germany in 1937.

However,chances are you will instantly recognise the monumental opening chorus,O Fortuna,which has featured in movies ranging fromNatural Born Killers toLord of the Rings as well as in a slew of ad campaigns.

Brett Weymark will conduct Carmina Burana,the biggest choral production in the world since COVID-19 emerged.

Brett Weymark will conduct Carmina Burana,the biggest choral production in the world since COVID-19 emerged.Keith Saunders

On Saturday,Sydney Town Hall will reverberate to the sound of Orff’s masterwork in what is being billed as the largest choral performance anywhere in the world since COVID-19 locked down the planet in March last year.

Brett Weymark,musical director of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs,will conduct 120 choristers,backed by two pianists and six percussionists,in a full 60-minute rendition ofCarmina.

“To my colleagues in Europe and America,putting on such a large concert is actually unthinkable,” Weymark says,adding that it shows “normal life” can resume despite the pandemic. “This is a bold statement to Australia,and the world.”

It’s been a difficult process to prepare the singers for the performance. Until this week,Weymark has been forced to divide the choir into smaller groups:women or men,mornings or afternoons.

“But come hell or high water,we were determined to make it happen,” he says. “Carmina Burana is full of rhythm and catchy melody,but the real joy is to listen to the music with the translation so you can understand how incredibly risque these medieval texts were.”

The original texts,found in a monastery,were written in the 12th and 13th centuries by various authors — “mostly poets and minstrels as well as monks” — in Latin,Middle/High German or Old French,and follow the seasons from bleak winter to back again.

Carmina Burana is a postcard of medieval life,” Weymark says. “It describes what really goes on in the medieval tavern,with gambling,gluttony,drunkenness and defrocked monks. Or a spring afternoon in the meadow when young women and men let loose. In many ways humans haven’t changed.”

A shadow will always hover over Orff’s reputation,Weymark says.

“He was very shy about his relationship with the Nazi party. We do know he rewrote (Jewish composer Felix) Mendelssohn’s music forA Midsummer Night’s Dream when the Nazis wanted it replaced by a non-Jewish composer. There are scant details of his associations with the Nazis in any of his biographies. We don’t know if he was innocent. But his main focus wasn’t writing music for the Third Reich.”

Should the artist’s flaws detract from the work produced?

Wagner was a far more outspoken and obnoxious anti-Semite,Weymark points out,“and yet still we listen to his music”.

Carmina Burana is preceded by three Australian works that embrace the same earthy connection to the natural world.

Saturday’s one-off concert begins withTarimi Nulay – Long Time Living Here,” a choral acknowledgement of country”,sung in the Gadigal language with text by Gadigal man Matthew Doyle and set to music by Deborah Cheetham.

Peter Sculthorpe’sSun Music “reflects the harsh landscape of the Nullarbor Plain”,Weymark says,then comes John Peterson’sThe Earth That Fire Touches.

“Peterson’s work introducesCarmina Burana,” Weymark says. “For all our planet’s natural beauty,we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. If we don’t treat our planet correctly,it will come back to bite us.”

That may be in the form of cyclones,floods,bush fires,mouse plagues. “And pandemics,” Weymark adds.

Carmina Burana,Sydney Town Hall,May 22,3pm,

Steve Meacham is a freelance writer.

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