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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘This piece is thrilling’: Spokane Symphony to perform ‘Carmina Burana’ with three local opera singers at the Fox

You won’t have to wait around long to hear a familiar tune in Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” In fact, the opening notes form one of the most recognizable musical sound bites in existence. From films to commercials to talk radio intros, “O Fortuna” is used so often that if you say you’ve never heard it, you must be either living under a rock or lying.

The Spokane Symphony, conducted by music director James Lowe, and the Spokane Symphony Chorale, directed by Kristina Ploeger-Hekmatpanah, will perform Orff’s masterpiece at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Saturday at 8 p.m.

The rest of the piece, while nowhere near as ubiquitous as the first movement, is no less powerful , baritone soloist Aaron Agulay said. The concert will also feature two other local favorites, soprano Dawn Wolski and tenor Christopher Pfund. Agulay, Pfund and Wolski are members of the vocal faculty at Washington State University, the University of Idaho and Eastern Washington University, respectively.

“It’s a real test of stamina,” Agulay said. “But with the range that it uses, there are so many special moments.”

Agulay, who will be making his debut with the Spokane Symphony, first studied the piece under his longtime mentor Kevin McMillan. Before retiring the role, McMillan performed the baritone part in “Carmina Burana” hundreds of times, including a Grammy Award-winning performance recorded with the San Francisco Symphony.

“Hearing ‘Carmina Burana’ for the first time, I just thought, ‘This is out of this world … who can possibly sing this?’ ” Agulay said. Agulay sings almost from start to finish, oscillating between soaring high notes and some of the lowest required of a baritone.

Over the course of the “secular oratorio,” the baritone role takes on the whole gamut of human experience as the wheel of fortune turns on itself, beginning and ending with the same “O Fortuna.”

A traditional, more religious oratorio like Handel’s “Messiah” is about God becoming man. But “Carmina Burana,” considered almost too “erotic” by some of its earlier audiences, is about a man, and not always, if ever, at his most righteous.

“You have to be ready to change and play these different characters, characters that maybe making fun of another you played in a previous section,” Agulay said.

One moment, you’re frolicking through a tavern, the next you’re in love, and then suddenly the fates turn and dust returns to dust. But all along, Agulay said, there’s a driving rhythm that keeps performers and audiences alike engaged and ready for the next phrase.

The other vocal soloists appear much less often – the soprano sings in several movements, but only in the third section, and the tenor appears only once in the second section. But their roles are just as technically demanding and ask a great deal as far as vocal range is concerned.

The tenor piece is essentially 2½ minutes of high notes. And for a lot of singers, that string of high C’s just isn’t worth the “mental anguish.”

“But it doesn’t bother me. I don’t think about what the notes are – I just go out there and sing it and have fun,” Pfund said.

For Pfund, who coincidentally sang his first professional performance of the tenor role opposite McMillan, the notes came almost naturally. And today, more than 200 performances later, they continue to do so.

“It’s such an irreverent piece – I’ve never felt a tremendous amount of nerves with it,” he said. The tenor portrays a swan that’s been roasted and eaten. “It’s everything from a meal to a metaphor for Christ. … I feel like no matter what happens, no matter how I feel on any given performance, that I can make it something that the audience will love. … That’s the beauty of it.”

The freedom and inherent irreverence in the piece lends itself to innovation as far as staging. In various productions, he’s been asked to sing the role from a balcony, the aisles and an organ loft.

“It’s such an aesthetic piece. It’s done so differently in every venue – I just try to be creative with the space and with the people and see where it takes me,” he said.

“This piece is thrilling. I think it’s probably the most enjoyable major orchestral work that has ever been written for the general audience – you will love this concert.”

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