River Symphony by Sean O'Boyle and Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. The National Capital Orchestra, the Canberra Choral Society, Canberra Brass and soloists conducted by Leonard Weiss. Saturday, July 23, at 7.30pm. Llewellyn Hall, ANU. Tickets $20-$45. ticketek.com.au.
Two large-scale choral works will be performed at the National Capital Orchestra's next concert at Llewellyn Hall with more than 120 performers on stage. One of them is the Canberra premiere of Australian Sean O'Boyle's River Symphony, a piece that, just 10 years after its 1999 premiere, ranked 83rd in the ABC Classic FM Classic 100 Symphony listener survey (between Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 1 (82nd) and Mahler's Das Lied Von Der Erde (84th). The other is one of the most popular of all 20th-century choral works, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (which ranked ninth on ABC Classic FM's 2016 Classic 100 Voice listener survey).
The concert, conducted by Leonard Weiss, will open with the Prelude to Act III of Richard Wagner's opera Lohengrin before leaving Germany temporarily for Australia with the first Canberra performance of River Symphony.
"It's a great work," Weiss says.
The piece employs sung text, a wordless choir of between 80 and 90, and instrumental textures to evoke the water and the feelings and creatures associated with it as well as the cities and pollution that threaten it.
Although it's only about 25 minutes long, River Song, originally written for Brisbane's River Festival, is large in scale, with a chorus, two sopranos – one singing the role of the Mother of the River, the other the Child of the River – and a brass band as well as the full orchestra.
Canberra Choral Society artistic director Tobias Cole says River Symphony "has got a soundscape that a lot of people will be familiar with through Australian film scores – it's very descriptive music".
He says for the most part. "the choir is really another instrument in the orchestra", making sounds, often simple and percussive, rather than singing intelligible words, in helping to bring the piece to life.
In the second half of the concert, it's back to Germany for Carmina Burana. Orff's 1935-36 cantata is a musical setting of mediaeval poems, mostly in Latin and Middle High German, that also makes use of an even larger chorus of about 100 singers – incorporating a children's chorus, the Turner Trebles – and two pianos augmenting the orchestra.
Canberra Choral Society artistic director Tobias Cole reached out to some of his musical colleagues outside Canberra for this concert: Opera Australia baritone David Greco will be a soloist in Carmina Burana and Song Company soprano Susannah Lawergren will perform in River Symphony as the Daughter of the River and in Carmina Burana.
Canberra soprano Sarahlouise Owens will sing the part of the Mother of the River in River Symphony.
Cole will be singing the tenor role of the roasted swan in Carmina Burana, a part he's sung several times. He says, "It's a special moment, the swan moment, very descriptive ... I might be wearing my feather boa!"
He says the work presents great challenges to the chorus although the Choral Society always enjoy doing it – their last performance of it was with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra in 2013.
Cole says Orff's methods of rhythm and melody made him popular with performers and audiences and have helped the work to endure.
"Hearing it, it is very easy to grasp ... it's not too challenging to the ear."
Cole says the text can be quite racy, dealing with subjects such as love and desire, suggesting the monks who wrote it did not always have their minds on spiritual matters, which might also help to account for its popularity.
"I've been careful not to translate everything for the primary school children [who are singing]."
Weiss will be conducting his first Carmina Burana. He says there's a lot more to the work than the ubiquitous opening (and closing) chorus O Fortuna, familiar through its use in advertisements and film scores, but with elements that have similar appeal recurring through the work.
"It's punchy, you get it through the first hearing," he says.
Orff's use of repetition, simplicity and catchy melodies works throughout to take the listener through the work.
"It's a lot of fun."