Music Youth orchestra prepares for full-force spectacle
Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” forewarns about the fickle nature of fortune in the famously fiery “O Fortuna,” but the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestra proves the good fortunes that come with preparing such a major work.
Performing “Carmina Burana” presents a rare opportunity for an area youth orchestra to collaborate with two major Fairfield County choirs — the Mendelssohn Choir of Connecticut and the Fairfield University Glee Club — as well as professional choral soloists.
With two adult choirs, professional soloists, and a youth orchestra with an extended array of percussion packed on the Klein Memorial Auditorium stage on March 31 at 3 p.m., the performance of this dramatic cantata will be a spectacle for both the eyes and ears. The concert repeats at the Quick Center in Fairfield on April 6 at 7 p.m.
“It’s not often a youth orchestra, in particular, gets to do “Carmina,” and rarer still, a youth orchestra that gets to do “Carmina” with the caliber of the Mendelssohn Choir of Connecticut and the soloists we have lined up,” says Music Director Christopher Hisey.
Additionally, Hisey is celebrating his 10th anniversary as music director. Under his leadership, the GBYO has grown considerably. Adding wind, percussion, and jazz ensembles to the organization’s four orchestras, the GBYO now serves more than 360 young musicians, from elementary-aged students through high school. Growth continues: Hisey anticipates adding a second jazz ensemble for next season.
Hisey’s history with the GBYO is much longer than his tenure as music director. He began as a student violist with the GBYO when he was in fifth grade. Between performance and conducting degrees, Hisey was continually drawn back to the GBYO, first as a string coach and then as a conductor, before he was named music director in 2008.
“My predecessor Bob Genualdi was a force to be reckoned with,” says Hisey of GBYO’s longtime director and area educator. “To follow in his footsteps has been nothing short of an honor. My job has been to keep an eye on the legacy he left while trying to further the mission of the program and move it forward.”
He aims to engage in the kinds of community collaborations that are only common in the country’s leading, big-city youth orchestras. Performing an enormous and ubiquitous work like “Carmina Burana,” which he calls the “Carmina Project” for its scope, advances his goal.
“Carmina Burana” is a musical work written by German composer Carl Orff around 1935 based on 24 poems that originate in a secular medieval manuscript. The short poems tackle everything from fate, to springtime, to love, and even bar brawls. The text is highly dramatic and satirical. Carole Ann Maxwell, the founder and director of the Mendelssohn Choir who also leads the Fairfield University Glee Club, calls the work intense. “It’s gripping, it’s thrilling, it’s haunting, it’s climactic, it reaches so many climaxes throughout.”
If the title of the work isn’t recognizable, the tunes will be for audiences. The opening and closing movement “O Fortuna” is a pop culture sensation, appearing in such places as episodes of “The Simpsons,” commercials during the Super Bowl, Final Fantasy video games, and is even a frequent fight song for sports teams such as the New England Patriots and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Patrick McGovern, a sophomore at Masuk High School and a violist in the GBYO’s Principal Orchestra, says that although “O Fortuna” is instantly recognizable, it’s the constantly changing characteristics of each poem’s musical setting that is satisfying to play. For instance, a rhythmically playful and intense middle movement with beautiful melodies, “In Taberna,” is a favorite among the students. “It has everything that you’d want when you’re playing a piece,” he says. The work challenges the students with complex rhythms and frequent meter changes.
It’s a challenge for the professionals, too. Thomas Woodman, a Greenwich native and longtime Fairfield resident who has sung internationally, says that the work requires vocal gymnastics from his deep, baritone voice. The solo part reaches so high that the score instructs him to “sing like a tenor,” a range usually given to a different singer. “The baritone part could easily be sung by three different people,” he says. Fortunately, he has a lot of experience with the part, ever since replacing another singer at the Staddstheatre in Darmstaad in Germany 35 years back.
Performing with two choirs worth of singers is a new experience for GYBO students, who will have increased responsibilities to follow their parts once conductor Hisey is focused on keeping everyone together. Clarinetist Mei Mei Dittrich, a senior at Fairfield Ward High School, says that Hisey instructs students to be “on their game.”
He knows they will be: “When we wind up the students and let them lose on the stage of the Klein, it’s going to be something to see.”
Anna Reguero is a freelance writer.