Carmina Burana is Michael Christie’s first concert at Symphony Hall in his final season as the Phoenix Symphony’s music director.
We caught up with Christie to talk about the performance as well as his feelings on Carl Orff’s most famous work.
Question: What are your thoughts going into Carmina Burana?
Answer: I’m thrilled to be doing this particular program because it brings everybody that’s part of the symphony family together. The chorus and some great soloists and every single member of the orchestra is on that stage. So it’s very appropriate to have that return to Symphony Hall be with everybody plus the kitchen sink.
Q: Is that why you chose this particular piece?
A: Partly. It’s also Thanksgiving weekend, so we wanted to make sure it was something that’s going to really get people’s attention from a programming perspective. When I was talking to people in the orchestra and the chorus about things they felt we had accomplished over my tenure, enough people said they had really good memories of our Carmina performance three or four years ago that I thought, well, that’s great. It’s a good interval, actually, since we’d done it last, and it’s great that people felt so strongly.
Q: What do you think it was about the symphony’s performance that people felt so strongly about?
A: It’s a lot of drama. It’s a lot of moving parts. If you don’t take care, you miss out on some of the real power and drama of it. So holding that together and really bringing those aspects out are probably why people would have thought that was notable.
Q: Are there particular sections of Carmina that you think are maybe sometimes not handled as well as they could be?
A: It’s one of those things where sometimes conductors will divide their focus to where it’s maybe too much the chorus or too much the orchestra, depending on what their particular proclivity is. I try, especially in working with the chorus, to balance it. I’ve always tried to make it my business to know everybody’s business and really be connected to everybody on the stage.
Q: The symphony website calls it one of the most memorable musical creations of the 20th century. Are those your words?
A: No. But it’s definitely true. That O Fortuna opening, the popular culture references are through the roof (sings the part). That’s just everywhere, from movies to I can think of this one terrific Australian ad for Carlton Beer. They used that, and it was a perfect representation of the size of it. They had thousands of people in this enormous field. I think it may have been in New Zealand. It just has that thing where you hear that O Fortuna at the beginning and it just seizes people. It just grabs you because it’s so visceral. It has such suspense. And then it unleashes this almost kind of ritualistic sensibility. I think that’s part of it. It’s not polite. It really digs deep into your spirit.
Q: After the premiere, composer Carl Orff dismissed what he had written prior to Carmina Burana. Do you think he was being fair to his earlier work?
A: Well, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a composer, living in that world and having all that music swirling around in your head. I think he probably got a little wrapped up, to be honest (laughs). He wrote a lot of very important and interesting pieces. I think what’s so special about his music is that each piece is very, very different. So maybe he just felt like he hit something there. But I wouldn’t discount his other pieces. I think they’re really cool. It’s a bit of shame, frankly, that we don’t do more of the other things.
There are two other huge orchestra and chorus pieces that are also really interesting. But whenever you say “Let’s do this by Carl Orff,” it’s “Oh, well, it’s got to be Carmina Burana then.” (laughs). It’s just one of those things. It’s like Humperdinck, who wrote Hansel and Gretel. How many other things do you know by Humperdinck? Hansel and Gretel really is this perfect opera. But he did write other stuff. In a similarly unfortunate way, we’ve kind of pigeonholed Orff and Carmina Burana.
Q: I guess that’s the downside of having written one of the most memorable musical creations of the century.
A: Exactly (laughs). Sometimes when you think of pieces you hear fairly often, you think “Oh, OK, we’ve heard that enough” or “What could we possibly do?” But just to hear a great performance of Carmina Burana is tremendously thrilling. It’s one of those pieces where there’s always something different because of how maybe the baritone soloist has to be in the tavern scene or the delicacy of the soprano as she’s in this court of love. It’s really interesting because along with the ritualistic side, there’s a very personal representation of ego and machismo and sensual love.
Every singer brings something different to that presentation and, consequently, no two performances are ever the same. So it’s one of those things you never get tired of.
Q: Is it difficult choosing the right singers for those parts?
A: I find that I do want the soprano to have this soaring quality in her voice. And the baritone has to have a huge range, so the guy I have for that has a terrifyingly big range. He can outsing tenors and a lot of basses. He’s also got this meaty sound you really need to corral everybody in the tavern scene.
Then, there’s the swan on the spit. You need a particular voice. How would a swan sound when it’s being spun over a fire? From there, it just depends on how much of any of that do you want. It’s an hour long. So you want each tableau that happens in the piece to grab people’s attention.