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Young Voices Bring Ancient Words To Tanglewood Stage

Rows of teenaged singers face a woman on a stage in a gymnasium
Josh Landes
Katie Woolf conducts the Boston University Tanglewood Institute in rehearsal at Morris Elementary School in Lenox, Massachusetts

A group of young musicians is getting ready will take to stage Saturday at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts.

It’s Tuesday afternoon at Morris Elementary School in Lenox, and the gymnasium is filled with the unmistakable, sinister sound of “O Fortuna,” a medieval poem set to music by Carl Orff in the 1930s for his scenic cantata Carmina Burana. It’s become ubiquitous in pop culture, used in everything from American Horror Story and Jackass: The Movie to Final Fantasy VII.

Seven centuries after the words were written and 70 years after Orff’s composition debuted, students in the Boston University Tanglewood Institute are preparing to take it to Seiji Ozawa Hall Saturday afternoon.

“Young people are so much fun to work with, they are my favorite age group. I love the young high school singer," said Katie Woolf, who conducts the Young Artist Chorus at BUTI. “You get to introduce them to adult literature, adult repertoire for the first time. Because as a high school singer, you’re just coming in to what will eventually become your adult voice. So you can start to sing adult, sophisticated literature, and to experience that with them for the first time is just so exciting.”

Since 1966, BUTI has brought young people to Lenox all summer long to study singing, orchestra, wind ensemble, harp, and composition. This year, around 440 students from 40 states and 12 countries are participating.

Woolf says her expectations for the 71 members of the chorus are at the highest professional level.

“We talk from day one about punctuality, we talk about how you must treat your body as an instrument, and you must sit well, stand well, breathe well, articulate the text, think about all of the technical things your teacher is asking you to do, and communicate, all at the same time," said the conductor. "And it’s easy for some of them to put it all together and some of them struggle with it, but I think that’s the fun and the exciting part of this program is that they get treated the way that they will be treated in the profession, with some understanding that of course they’re still adolescents and they’re still learning and they’re still growing.”

“My dream is to become a professional opera singer, and so I came to this program actually last year as well, and it’s not very common that you find a program like this where you get trained to this level and the people also become your family," said Sophia Beate, 16, a mezzo from Louisville, Kentucky. “It’s super emotional, whenever we go on that stage and we’re singing ‘O Fortuna,’ the opening piece, and the big part comes in where the sopranos are singing the high Gs, it gives you chills because you get to see people’s faces when that happens. And that to me is one of the most important parts of music, it is a universal way of communication, so to see people’s reactions to what we’re singing is incredible. It’s like no other feeling. I get chills every time we do it, and we do it every day, but I still get chills every time it happens, because there’s nothing like it.”

“It’s such an otherworldly experience because it’s not about you anymore," said Corinna Bruckner, 18 – a fellow mezzo from Philadelphia. “It’s about everyone together.  You are just one of the whole, even though everyone does matter in that space, you are doing this together to make this gorgeous sound.”

Like Beate, she dreams of being a professional singer. For Bruckner, the invocation of pieces like ‘O Fortuna’ is a rite that places her and her peers into a larger narrative.

“This is centuries old," she told WAMC. "You’re taking part in something that’s been going on for a millennia, and we are continuing that tradition but putting our own spin on it. This is now our version of something that may have started years and years and years ago.”

The BUTI Young Artist Chorus – along with faculty soloists – will perform Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood Saturday at 1:30.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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