Sarah Ross is not sure how the request came about, but sometime last spring Linus Lerner called her with an enticing proposition: Would her Marana High School choir be up to the task of Carl Orff’s monumental cantata “Carmina Burana”?
That was a no-brainer: Of course they were in!
The Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra conductor made a similar call to Rincon/University High School, whose choir director, Mareena Boosamra Ball, quickly accepted.
Then he invited the far east-side Cienega High School’s orchestra and choir to get involved. They aren’t singing in the production, which kicks off Friday, Nov. 8, at Marana High School, but the school is hosting a concert next week and will get a chance to perform a few works on its own.
The high school vocalists will join SASO in five productions of the work — three at the high schools and two at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Oro Valley — between Friday and next Sunday, Nov. 17.
“What’s exciting about this is the partnerships,” Lerner said last week after rehearsing with the Marana chorus and the 5-year-old Helios Ensemble on Tuesday night; Helios is performing the adult choir role while Rincon University will take the children’s choir role. Marana is singing the entire piece.
“The high school kids are very excited. High schools don’t get the chance to do something like ‘Carmina Burana’ and here they get to perform with a big orchestra and be part of a big event,” Lerner said.
With the high school choirs, the Helios Ensemble choir and three soloists including one from Mexico City and another from Lerner’s native Brazil, SASO will has at least 80 vocalists and an orchestra at least as big on the same stage. They will perform “Carmina Burana” five times as part of SASO’s 40th anniversary season. (A few instrumentalists from each school’s orchestras also will play a role, he said.)
“The idea was to really partner on our 40th season, thinking about the future of our audiences and the future of our orchestras,” said Lerner, who has focused over his dozen years at the helm of SASO on community collaborations. “We’ve got to think of the future of our orchestras.”
For the high schools and their students, the collaboration presents a chance to really step outside their comfort zones and perform an epic work that the schools would likely never consider doing on their own.
“It’s awesome,” said Marana Choir Director Sarah Ross, who said the biggest challenge for her advanced choir students was adapting to the Germanic Latin pronunciation that dominates the bulk of the hourlong piece. “For people just learning the rules of Latin pronunciation, we’re telling them to break them, and that’s hard.”
Ross and her choirs have been working on the piece since school started in August. They performed two movements from the “Carmina Burana” at their fall concert in September and then dove into the rest of the work about a month ago.
“I think they sound really good,” she said days before the choir was to perform the first concert at Marana High School on Friday.
Rincon’s 20-voice strong advanced women’s choir has been working on the piece for a couple months. Ball agreed with Ross that the biggest challenge is nailing the pronunciation.
This is the biggest production Ball’s choir has done in the 19 years she’s led it. But the group is no stranger to challenges; they regularly travel out of state for performances including a trip to Greece two summers ago and a trip in the spring to New York City for a Carnegie Hall concert.
But being part of “Carmina Burana” is a chance to connect with the community in a bigger way, she said.
“We are trying to make it as community-friendly as possible and get these kids to have the opportunity to be able to sing and perform not only with this fantastic orchestra but all of the soloists coming up from Mexico City,” said Ball, whose choir will participate in two concerts — at Empire High School on Saturday, Nov. 9, and at Rincon/University High on Wednesday, Nov. 13. “It’s a great opportunity for these kids.”
“I just like doing things in the community,” added Ross, whose choir collaborated with the Tucson Desert Song Festival in 2018, performing the opening concert in the festival’s Leonard Bernstein celebration. “I feel I would much rather play a really small part here and collaborate with a local group than perform a bigger piece” outside of Tucson.
Marana will perform in three of the concerts — Friday’s and the two SASO subscription concerts in Oro Valley next weekend.
Ross, who sings with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra Chorus, also leads the Marana Community Music Theatre, a multigenerational community organization that puts on a concert and a music theater production every year.
SASO’s Lerner, who is in his 13th season with the volunteer orchestra, tapped “Carmina Burana” to commemorate the orchestra’s 30th year in 2009. That concert also was a huge community collaboration between the orchestra and a trio of community choirs. In all, those performances boasted more than 240 musicians and vocalists on one stage.