UK vs. Louisville: Prime time for Carmina Burana

John Nardolillo conducting the Lexington Singers and University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra in a rehearsal of another titan work, the Berlioz "Requiem" in April 2010. © Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

Listen to O Fortuna from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana on Spotify.

Who knows if it was the basketball gods, music gods or, oh, fortune that led the Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts to schedule a performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana by the University of Kentucky Symphony and the Lexington Singers for Friday night. But it’s hard to think of a more perfect lead in to the titanic clash will take place Saturday in New Orleans when the University of Kentucky plays the University of Louisville in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Final Four.

If you are thinking, “Huh?,” trust me, you probably know more about this than you assume.

Carmina Burana is a cantata by Carl Orff based on 24 poems and songs from a medieval collection of the same name. The principal way most everyone knows the piece is by the chorus O Fortuna, which has to be a contender for most appropriated classical work in pop culture, particularly if someone wants to illustrate something like, oh, mortal conflict.

As Time magazine described it (with our locally-relevant thoughts in the parenthesis): “It’s the go-to piece for any director or editor who wants to ramp up the drama (if that is possible, in this case) or conflict (intrastate basketball rivals in the basketball state; one team coached by the turncoat coach who once led the other team to a championship) or doom (what Louisville faces Saturday evening).

The piece begins with a shout, then a slow, ominous ramp up by the chorus, culminating in a thunderous crash of percussion and a vocal gale that brings to mind images such as hordes of enemy soldiers spilling over a mountainside — for our purposes, we’ll imagine them wearing a certain shade of blue.

John Nardolillo.

University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra director John Nardolillo says the piece should be well known to UK sports fans because, “The UK football team uses it for their player introductions. So UK fans already have that big piece from Carmina Burana in their ear as being connected with the excitement of UK athletics.”

The piece has also been appropriated by movies from The Hunt for Red October to the opening-credit sequence for Jackass: The Movie (click the Time link to see that), on the Fox series Glee to set up the conflict between Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) and Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), by numerous wrestling and ultimate fighting programs and participants, and commercial campaigns for products such as Gatorade.

Nardolillo says that part of O Fortuna’s greatness is that it is so easily appropriated.

“You hear it over an over again in every different context, and it has resonance and meaning over and over again in all different situations for all different people in all different circumstances,” Nardolillo says. “That’s what makes it a universally great piece of music.”

Most people don’t know and really don’t care what the Latin text says. But Nardolillo points out it has relevance to a sporting event.

“The text talks about the wheel of fortune going around, first you’re up and then you’re down and you’re hoping to come back up again,” Nardolillo says. “It has all that going on, and somehow, if you listen to it, you sort of hear that going on even if you don’t know what the words are. You still get the sensation of the excitement of what could happen.

“With an athletic competition, you have that element of you’re hoping for good fortune, but it could turn out to be a disaster at the last second.”

Heaven, forbid.

Nardolillo confirms the scheduling of the performance and the Final Four are total coincidences, saying he and Lexington Singers director Jefferson Johnson and EKU Center director Deb Hoskins were simply working to select a piece that would show off the new concert hall that opened in September.

But Nardolillo says the looming competition may add a little spice to Friday’s performance. The symphony shares a number of performers who also play with the UK Pep Band.

“Our kids are basketball fans and Kentucky fans,” Narolillo says. “All the kids that are playing the piece that are fans of the team will have the same association fans have.”

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