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Muti, CSO Kick Off Season With Free Millennium Park Concert

By Alexander Hough in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 19, 2012 3:20PM

CSO playing in Millennium Park in September 2010 (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

This Friday Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra return to Millennium Park with a free performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. It will be the CSO’s first trip back to the Pritzker Pavilion since the “Concert for Chicago” that kicked off Muti’s tenure as music director in September 2010. This time they’ll be joined by the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Chicago Children’s Choir, along with soprano Rosa Feola, countertenor Antonio Giovannini, and baritone Audun Iversen, to play one of the most popular pieces of classical music ever written.

You know Carmina Burana. Everyone knows Carmina Burana, or at least everyone knows the “O Fortuna” movement, which has seeped into all corners of our culture in either its original form or as barely-concealed plagiarism. We were researching its various uses in commercials, film, and beyond, and came across the nugget that it “was used as the entrance theme for the Undertaker's druids at Wrestlemania 14” (consider it fact-checked). If the WWE (née WWF) uses a piece of music, it can safely be called mainstream.

Carmina Burana has been widely used because it’s so popular, and it’s been extremely popular since its premiere in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1937. The Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi Party paper, initially ascribed to it a particularly racist epithet, far as it was from the Wagnerian lineage of high German culture, although they embraced the piece once it became evident that Germans loved it. The resulting fame made Orff a conspicuous musical presence in Nazi Germany, although he seems to have been more of an opportunist than an ideologue, a flaccid personality trait that bled into the postwar years with his galling lie to American denazification authorities that he was a founder of a resistance movement.

But “popular” doesn’t necessarily mean “evil,” and over the past 75 years many people who were not Nazis have loved Carmina Burana. So why has it been such a steady hit? Basically, its characteristics bear a striking resemblance to the formula for today’s pop music: The music, a callback to the early music Orff was studying as the conductor of the Munich Bach Society, is highly tonal with uncomplicated harmonies, repetitive, and structurally simple, but it’s intensely dramatic, rhythmic, and makes use of a large battery of percussion. Also, the lyrics are about drinking and sex.

The work, for large orchestra, chorus (both adult and children’s choir), and three vocal soloists, is based on songs and poems written in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries by the Goliards, a loose-knit, wandering band of clergy-scholars who satirized the church and extolled sensual pleasure. It’s edgy stuff, although the text - “May God grant, may the gods permit/The plan I have in mind/To undo the bonds/Of her virginity,” for instance, or the tavern song that toasts, among other people, “dissolute sisters,” before running down a comprehensive list of everyone who likes to drink - is subtler, or at least tamer, than we’re used to. Catching all the innuendo requires an attuned ear - or reading comprehension, since the words are in Latin or German - but it’s not hard once you realize it’s essentially all about earthly pleasures.

Friday’s concert gets underway at 6:30 p.m., although we strongly recommend you get there as early as possible - 25,000 people turned out when the CSO performed in Millennium Park two years ago. We don’t expect that many people this time around, but it’s still apt to be crowded.

Friday at 6:30 p.m., Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, FREE