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'Carmina Burana Africana' adds percussion, dance to classic

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Thomas Wesley Douglas says he likes to give listeners a "musical experience they have never had before."

His look at "Carmina Burana" probably will do that.

The artistic director of the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh is taking a work written in the 1930s by German composer Carl Orff. To song versions of poems written in Latin and medieval German, he is adding African percussion and dance, and calling it "Carmina Burana Africana." It will be performed this weekend at the New Hazlett Theater, North Side.

"Everything else about it will be the same musically," Douglas says. "It is the same 'Carmina Burana,' just a different take on it."

Michael Vercelli, who is adding the percussion parts, says when Douglas first mentioned the idea to him, he found it "daunting," but since has been able to put together parts with instruments from all over the continent and is confident it will work.

He is the director of world music performance at the College of Creative Arts at West Virginia University.

The task offered the same sort of challenge to Greer Reed, founding artistic director of the August Wilson Dance Ensemble at the Downtown center.

She talks about how Douglas asked her to create African dance to go with the new percussion in the work. When she asked when she could get some music to inspire her choreographic efforts, he said it would be available -- at dress rehearsal.

That meant she had to create to the existing work and also means, she says, that "we will have to be flexible" when rehearsal begins.

"We will see what works and if we have to change anything," she says.

Douglas says he got the idea of doing "Carmina Burana" this way because of strong rhythmic feeling in the work.

Orff (1895-1982) based the piece on manuscripts found in 1803 in a Benedictine monastery. The title is Latin for "Songs from Beurn," referring to the town where they were found. The pieces range from satirical looks at religion to explorations of wild carousing.

Those topics and the aggressive style of the composition make it "easy to come up with movement," Reed says. She says the "In the Tavern" section, which deals with the use of drink to escape reality, was particularly good to work with.

Vercelli says the work presented an individual challenge because some pitched African percussion instruments didn't quite match the tones in the songs. Because the substitution would be inaccurate, he eliminated their use entirely and believes the absence will not be missed.

He could not find a substitute for large gongs and crash cymbals, either, he says, but has kept the European instruments in the performance because they create an effect that cannot be eliminated.

"It worked so well in the score and cutting them would create a big hole," he says.

Additional Information:

'Carmina Burana Africana'

Presented by: Bach Choir of Pittsburgh

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $25, $18 for senior citizens and $10 for students

Where: New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East, North Side

Details: 412-394-3353

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