It was an afternoon steeped in memories. A sold-out house had come to the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater to participate in the last concert Arthur Shaw would be conducting for the Rogue Valley Symphony after a tenure of 22 years. It also would be the last concert of the symphony's current season.
The featured piece on the program was "Carmina Burana," Carl Orff's magnum opus. To present it, the symphony teamed up with the Rogue Valley Chorale and invited three guest soloists and a nine-member boys chorus. That's about 200 musicians. A pretty impressive send-off for Shaw and a powerful afternoon of music for the audience.
As I wandered through the lobby before the concert began, I ran into a member of the Siskiyou Singers. The Siskiyou Singers had performed "Carmina Burana" twice, though not with a full orchestra. We were both privileged to have performed the piece with the group. I consider myself very fortunate to have sung at both concerts. This is a piece I have known and loved since high school. I once saw it performed with a ballet company.
So there we all were, ready to be swept away by the combined talents of the mighty musical 200. My wife wasn't able to join me that afternoon, so I handed my ticket back in at the box office so they could sell it to someone else.
When I got to my seat, someone was already sitting where my wife would have been. Her name was Ruth and she was so pleased to have been able to get a seat at the last minute. She had driven down from Grants Pass having chosen among three possible events to attend that afternoon. This was her first choice and it worked out.
As we talked before the concert started I learned that Ruth had gone back to college a few years ago to study music and ended up singing "Carmina Burana" last year in the chorale at Palomar College in San Diego along with another college choir and a full orchestra. That was when she was 79. She also had sung with the choir at Carnegie Hall. She plays piano. And these days she does magic shows for kids.
Shaw came out on stage and said, "English is my second language. Here is something in my first language, a piece I pulled out just for you." Then he turned to face the string sections of the orchestra and led them in playing the beautiful Adagio from Mahler's Symphony No. 5. When the piece finished, there was a long pause and someone from the audience shouted a loving "Thank you!" to Shaw and the rest of us broke into applause.
As the symphony members left the stage, Ruth said, "I highly admire it when I see a young person in one of these things."
Shaw had each of the three soloists come out and talk a little about what it was like for them singing this piece. Their voices were stunning. We were in for a treat. Then Shaw had the percussion section come out and illustrate a few interesting moments in the score. Then there was an intermission so that the second half of the program could be presented without interruption.
After the intermission the orchestra, chorale and soloists filled the Craterian stage and the space in front of it. Shaw came out and took his place on the raised podium. He had no music with him, just his baton. He planted his feet, gestured to the bass drum for the first beat and we were off, "O Fortuna!"
"Carmina Burana" is one of those pieces of music that just gets right into your bones. Its 25 movements are powerful, beautiful, funny, clever, touching, saucy and serious. It is an extraordinary work of art. It is a joy to perform, but in order to get to the joy, you have to work very hard at getting all the words — a hodgepodge of Latin and old German — to come out properly enunciated and in the right cadence. The harmonies are lush and the orchestration theatrical.
When the piece was over, the audience burst into thunderous applause and leapt to its feet. There were bows and gestures from Shaw directing the applause toward the orchestra, the soloists, the chorale and its director Lynn Sjolund.
The applause continued after everyone had been acknowledged several times. The boys choir delivered flowers to the soloists and Shaw. The first violinist presented a "Thank you" flower arrangement to Shaw on behalf of the orchestra. Then the members of the symphony each tossed a red rose toward their conductor. There were tears and smiles on stage and in the audience.
An afternoon to remember, indeed. Thank you, Arthur.