German composer Carl Orff considered the cantata Carmina Burana his magnum opus. According to legend, soon after it premiered in 1937 he told his publisher to destroy everything he had written before.
“It’s one of the most incredible pieces of classical music,” enthuses violinist Sinisa Ciric, concertmaster for the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra. “And it’s equally recognized as almost a pop culture piece. Because you hear it everywhere in movies and in commercials. As a classical piece, it’s absolutely a masterpiece.”
The Philharmonic, with full chorus and three operatic soloists, will perform Carmina Burana in its entirety Nov. 17 in the Johnny Mercer Theatre.
The singers are tenor Cooper Nolan, bass Keith Harris and soprano Rebecca Flaherty.
“It’s not an opera because there’s not really a story,” explains Flaherty, a co–founder of the Savannah–based Voice Co–op and a charter member of the nationally–renowned V.O.I.C.Experience Foundation. “It’s more like a whole bunch of bawdy poetry that has been collected, and we’re doing a musical reading of it. It’s more like a collection of really bombastic songs.”
Orff drew his text from the Latin verse collection Carmina Burana, dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. Its libretto is, essentially, a study of various aspects of daily human existence, what in medieval times was called the Rota Fortunae (“wheel of fortune”).
“I think the biggest difference is that an opera is more literal,” Flaherty says. “You’re actually singing lines, like from a play. Whereas a thing like Carmina Burana is more poetic, and figurative, with lots of imagery.”
Carmina Burana shares the program with Finlandia by Sibilius, and Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Suite 1, Opus 46.
It’s the young orchestra’s first–ever production in the Civic Center, after four ever–more–successful years performing in the boxy Lucas Theatre, and the breathtaking Cathedral of John the Baptist.
Both venues will host the Phil again, but Carmina Burana is a big, production that requires a big hall.
The move up is also testament to the community’s all–inclusive embrace of conductor and artistic director Peter Shannon, and the combined talents of his musicians.
Ciric, who lives in Atlanta, serves as concertmaster for several Georgia orchestras. “I’ve played a lot in the southeast region in the past 10 years, ” he explains, “and I’ve never had any close experience to what the Savannah Philharmonic has now, the support from all the people that are coming to the concerts, that are coming to the chamber series, and all the functions and events that are organized by the Philharmonic.”
Particularly encouraging, Ciric says, is the increase, year after year, in donations. “That’s the first sign something good is happening. Nobody would write a check by default — there has to be a reason.
“And the first reason is that they come and enjoy the concert. What they see on the stage, they just feel that they are supporting something that’s very important for the community, and for the overall culture.”
He joined the Savannah Philharmonic in 2010. The city, Ciric says, “is an absolutely special place for me. It’s one of the most enjoyable professional experiences in an orchestra I’ve had in my whole career.
“It’s a combination of a good, positive energy in the orchestra, and especially Peter as a leader and a conductor, and the relationship that we’ve built through these two years. And of course, the setting. The city is just unbelievable.”
There is an upswell of interest in classical music, as new talents arrive in the area, and word gets out.
And that’s the way it’s supposed to happen.
“I love that orchestra,” Flaherty says. “Peter is a fun conductor to work with, because everything is really visceral. There’s nothing that’s ever kind of limp and lazy — everything is very passionate, and there’s always a lot of energy behind what he’s doing. So the concert is done before you know it, because he just pulls you right through.
“And it’s a blast.”
Although Flaherty had performed with the Savannah Phil previously — for the Brahms Requiem in October 2011 — Nolan and Harris were recruited, by Shannon himself, from V.O.I.C.Experience headquarters in Florida.
“I think Peter really likes the quality of singers that V.E. uses,” adds Flaherty. “There’s a nice partnership developing between those two organizations, which I hoped would happen when I started the conversation. I didn’t know if it would lead to anything, but it has, and I’m super pleased and thrilled by that.”
Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: At 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17
Tickets: $16–$65 at savannahboxoffice.com
Phone: (912) 525–5050