Alive with the sound of Orff;Arts

29th January 1999 at 00:00
Why are two primary schools rehearsing the bawdy 'Carmina Burana'? Chrisopher Lambton finds out

Carmina Burana. Cappella Nova with the choirs of Sciennes and Jordanhill primary schools Glasgow.

Henry Wood Hall,January 30 Edinburgh Queen's Hall, January 31

Carmina Burana has a somewhat mixed reputation. The use of the opening chorus in an Old Spice television commercial in the Seventies helped the cantata become one of the most popular choral works ever written. Record companies seized on the bawdy, 13th-century, Latin lyrics and relentless percussive energy of Carl Orff's music in an attempt to market Carmina as proto-pop music.

But critics are inclined to sneer at the simple harmonies and primeval rhythms, which seem out of place in the intellectually demanding music of the 1930s (the piece was composed in 1937). The enforced camaraderie and nature worship of the medieval student songs chosen by Orff appeared to reflect Nazi ideology; Carmina Burana was repeatedly performed as a showpiece of Fascist values.

Which may make you wonder why two groups of primary school children from Edinburgh and Glasgow are being schooled for a performance of Carmina Burana with the choral group Cappella Nova.

"Iuvenes, iuvencule coniunguntur merito," pupils of Sciennes primary sing ("Young men and women are rightly coupled") in high soprano voices that struggle gamely with the swirl of short notes on "merito". Later, to buoyant rhythmic accompaniment, they pulse their way through "iam amore virginale totus ardeo", which should need no translation.

The answer is simply that Orff wrote extremely well for young voices and that the simplicity and ruggedness of his music has nothing to do with political values. In his belief that music should be open to all, the German composer devoted much of his time to developing easy percussion instruments and a teaching method that found global recognition.

Cappella Nova's forthcoming performances come close to Orff's ideals. Although many people associate Carmina Burana with the sound of a vast choir and orchestra, Orff arranged a version for two pianos and percussion. For these concerts Cappella Nova has plundered the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's percussion section for drums, tambourine, xylophone and three glockenspiels to form its own "Culina Nova", a play on the orchestral nick-name for percussion as the "kitchen".

The traditional orchestral performance uses just three soloists, but Cappella Nova's democratic approach is to have a professional choir of 18, of whom a dozen or so will take the various solo roles throughout the piece. Some of the choruses have been recast as quartets or duets.

The children's role is limited to two numbers near the end. Given that Orff had such a clear grasp of the sort of music that children could understand (toddlers dance manically to the dances in Carmina Burana), it is a pity that he did not give them more to do.

As it is, the training of the choirs from Sciennes and Jordanhill primary schools is not without challenges. At a recent rehearsal, the Sciennes choir of 30, all from P7, seem overawed by Cappella Nova's music director, Alan Tavener. "They normally raise the roof," confesses headteacher Lindsey Robertson, after a slightly meek rendition of "Oh, oh, oh! totus floreo!" Tavener, on the other hand, is delighted, drilling the short phrases to perfection before adding in accents and dynamic contrast. He is working in tandem with Libby Crabtree, one of Cappella Nova's soloists, who puts more emphasis on volume.

"You must give these notes real oomph," she urges. "Come on to that last note with a real thump."

The contrasting styles seem to work; the voices are loosened and by the end of the one-hour session there's a real sense of enjoyment.

But the biggest challenge - however well you know the notes - is knowing when to come in. The children have no sheets of music, so Tavener must make sure that, after 40 minutes in which they have been doing nothing, they stand up and sing when required. "Everyone's sitting, listening and wondering what you are going to do," he explains. "You are like the cherry on the cake."

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