Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ribald Latin live onstage!

Binge-drinking, rampant sex, problem gambling and very loud singing: a particularly torrid night at Dunedin Casino? Illegal student partying in darkest Castle St? No: this is in fact a fairly accurate description of a recent concert at Dunedin Town Hall, attended by a discerning audience of Dunedin's most morally upright arts lovers.

On 9 August, the Southern Sinfonia and no fewer than three choirs performed Carl Orff's Carmina Burana in all its glorious strangeness. Dunedin medievalists may recall Olim lacus colueram, the song sung by a roasted swan, which Carol and I recited at our last Christmas revel. At the concert, it was given a wonderfully creepy rendition by tenor John Murray. Other highlights included lovely countertenor singing by the baritone, Jared Holt; some wildly inappropriate lines sung by the Children's Chorus ("Cupid thus everywhere seized by desire/Young men and women are rightly coupled"); and the famously rousing ode to Fortune, the capricious presiding goddess of this work. Thanks to a very useful book recommended to me by Mistress Katherina, I was able to check up on the pronunciation of the Latin in the performance, which was indeed accurate for a thirteenth-century German text.

Carmina Burana is based on a collection of poems thought to have been written by the goliards, described in the programme notes as "vagrant monks" (and we are not unfamiliar with that particular species. I think you all know who I'm referring to). Carl Orff discovered the poems in 1935 and seized the opportunity to set them to "a music more closely related to speech and gesture and situation." For this performance, the stage was packed with well over 200 instrumentalists and singers, including our much-appreciated spinet player, Alan Edwards, who sang with Dunedin City Choir. Luckily, the hall itself was equally crowded, and the nearly full house responded to the performance with great enthusiasm.

It was fantastic to see how exciting such odd source material can be when it is handled well. These poems could easily have languished in an archive, or a little-read scholarly edition of medieval poetry. Instead, they have been given a new lease of life thanks to Orff's talent and imagination: a very inspiring and highly successful piece of creative anachronism.

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