Photography by Michael Weintrob

Carmina Burana Renata

A beloved classic is reimagined for Nashville audiences

How do we make a piece that is so familiar hopefully look and sound new again?”

That’s Giancarlo Guerrero, music director of the Nashville Symphony, considering the origins of a new collaborative project between his organization and the Nashville Ballet, one that promises to showcase the diversity of local artistic talent in a way never seen before.

From May 31 to June 3, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center will play host to multi-disciplinary performances of Carmina Burana. Featuring the Nashville Symphony and the Nashville Ballet performing in tandem, the shows will also include the Nashville Symphony Chorus, the Blair Children’s Chorus, and never-before-seen visual media from filmmaker Duncan Copp.

Carmina Burana is a widely loved piece of music based on medieval poems from the 11th and 12th centuries. Composed in the mid-1930s by German composer Carl Orff, the music has since become a mainstay in popular culture, with the movement “O Fortuna,” in particular, popping up frequently in film (Last of the Mohicans, Excalibur), television (The Simpsons, How I Met Your Mother) and advertising (Adidas, Domino’s). That familiarity is at the heart of Guerrero’s question: How do you breathe new life into such a well-known work?

The question posed a great challenge to the Symphony and the Ballet, both of which already had Carmina Burana in individual repertoires. Guerrero had conducted the music a number of times, while the Nashville Ballet’s artistic director Paul Vasterling had created choreography for the work in 2009. This new collaboration also inspired the organizations to test the limits of what could be accomplished in a live performance. Both Guerrero and Vasterling cite the bravery and sense of mystery of the original poetry, written in secret by young clerics, as inherent to their connection with the music and to their willingness to make a project of such ambitious scope work.

“What I did when I choreographed the ballet in 2009, for my own sake I guess, was to make sense of it,” Vasterling says. “Of course the music was driving me, and some of the poetry was driving me … . To me it’s really this cycle-of-life kind of idea, and how we go back to the beginning every time. We can do that in bigger and smaller ways and there are these elements in life that are sort of constant, which are love and lust and fear and goodness and badness. The basics.”

To pull off such a grand idea, it only made sense that the two organizations would work together. The Symphony and the Ballet have a longstanding, fruitful partnership, one that spans several years and numerous joint productions. For a time, the Symphony would join the Ballet for performances at TPAC, until, in 2016, the two organizations decided to try something new.

“We turned that relationship around a little bit and we commissioned the Ballet to do something with us at the Schermerhorn,” says Steven Brosvik, Chief Operating Officer of the Nashville Symphony. “We asked Paul Vasterling if he would create new choreography for Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. Copeland wrote the piece two ways, originally for 13 instruments. Then he expanded it to full orchestra. We did it there in the Schermerhorn and did it in its original instrumentation. Then the next month we went to TPAC and performed the large-scale version at the Ballet so the audience could hear it both ways if they wanted. That was a beginning of a new part of our relationship.”

It was after those performances that the seeds of Carmina Burana began to take root. Enlivened by the new possibilities opened up by their work together on Appalachian Spring, the Symphony and the Ballet brainstormed new ways to collaborate, eventually realizing a shared love for the beloved piece.

“We said, ‘Well what would we like to do next?’” Brosvik explains. “We talked about several projects, and Carmina Burana was the one that really seemed to grab everyone’s interest from both organizations. We just started working right away. It was a couple-year process getting to where we are now.”

“We had a couple of concerts where the Ballet performed in the Schermerhorn and the orchestra was on stage with them,” Guerrero explains. “It was so successful that we wanted to do something else, to do something perhaps a little bigger. The ballet has been part of the repertoire. Carmina Burana is one of the most beloved pieces in the orchestral classical repertoire, and it’s a piece that’s really close to my heart that I have conducted many times. We basically came up with the idea of how we could get those projects together, since it’s already part of the Ballet’s repertoire and I have a strong affinity to it. It just kind of rolled from there.”

While all involved had no shortage of enthusiasm for the collaboration, there were still many logistical difficulties to confront once a unified creative vision had been established. The biggest of those difficulties was how to make such a performance work within the restrictions of the Schermerhorn, which is notably not a multi-purpose hall. The team ultimately decided to remove a portion of the hall’s floor seats to make room for a makeshift orchestra pit, freeing the stage for dancers. Vasterling says he’s long envisioned performing Carmina with a visible orchestra, because the music itself is so integral to the experience.

“We had to get really creative with how all of this would work out,” Guerrero explains. “We’re fortunate that we have people in both of our organizations who are incredibly open-minded and incredibly creative. We’ve all been working very hard to make it work.”

“It is a gargantuan effort,” says Brosvik. “The dance company is bringing their dance floor and putting it on our stage. The chorus will be behind the stage. We have the Blair Children’s chorus, which will be out at the back of the audience. Everyone will have this multi-directional, surround-sound in the performance.”

Another component to consider was Copp’s film, which combines images of the original Carmina Burana text juxtaposed with multi-angle footage of the dancers in real-time. (The dance footage will appear live, not unlike that shown at a sporting event, but was actually shot in advance of performances.) Vasterling was especially excited by this component of the production, noting that he tweaked his original choreography to suit the show’s unique, 360-degree view of the dancers.

“It’s going to be a feast for the eyes, and really for every sense,” Vasterling says. “We filmed the ballet from a million different angles. There’s a lot of creativity there and a lot of fun. … There are times when it feels like you’ve switched your perspective and you’ve gone above the dancers, or you’re seeing them from the side. What’s wonderful about this technique they use is that the film is synched to what is happening in the orchestra and what is happening in the dance in that moment. There’s actually a person who’s almost performing the film, and connecting the film to the dance.”

“Having somebody of [Copp’s] creativity and ability with us in this program has been absolutely essential as well,” Brosvik says. “He comes from a perspective that whatever he creates on screen for a live performance really has to serve what’s happening live on stage.”

The team worked out its logistical kinks in theory, though no one really knew if the production would work as planned, and wouldn’t until they were able to bring each disparate part together for a run-through. Until that point, the organizations worked in good faith, driven by their enthusiasm for the concept.

“About a month and a half ago, we had a logistical run-through to see if all of this would actually work out,” Guerrero says. “Again, we really didn’t know. We were pushing the envelope not only with the orchestra and the choir and the dancers, but also we were stretching the possibilities of the hall. We were beyond thrilled by the fact that we might have found another wonderful aspect of how we can truly expand on what the Schermerhorn Symphony Center is able to present.”

Guerrero, Brosvik, and Vasterling agree an ambitious multimedia collaboration such as Carmina Burana is uniquely suited to Nashville, citing the city’s world-class talent, high-end facilities, growing population, and hunger for and understanding of sophisticated musical performances. It’s these elements, they say, that make Nashville fertile ground for truly groundbreaking artistic collaboration.

“We want to do more,” Guerrero says. “I already know that the Nashville Symphony by itself is recognized as an orchestra. It’s incredibly bold in its programming, and this is just proof of that. I do believe that 20 years, 50 years down the road, people are going to say, ‘What was going on in Nashville at the time that these institutions were pushing the envelope?’ The only answer you can have is that they had the support of their community. They allowed their institutions to dream big and think big.”

“I’ve worked in other cities through other opportunities, and have worked with other partners, but I really do have to say that there is something special about the artistic environment and culture in Nashville,” Brosvik says. “It’s an environment of understanding one another, of collaboration. There are so many genres of music happening here and so many arts happening all around us. People here are happy to share; they’re happy to work together. I think there’s a real spirit here of being able to do more than apart.”

Buoyed by that spirit and by shared willingness to creatively address any logistical challenges, the Nashville Symphony and the Nashville Ballet have envisioned a project that’s sure to change how people think about going to see a musical performance. Brosvik sums up the organizations’ mission succinctly when extolling the virtues of Carmina Burana and its musical longevity.

“It remains one of the most popular and favorite pieces for audiences,” he says. “But music doesn’t stand still.”