Who knows whether it was the basketball gods, the music gods or fortune that led the Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts to schedule a performance of Carmina Burana for Friday night, the eve of the NCAA men's Final Four. But it's hard to think of a more perfect lead-in to the titanic clash that will take place Saturday, when the University of Kentucky plays the University of Louisville.
If you are thinking, "Huh? Carmina Bur-what-a?," trust me, you probably know more about this than you think.
Carmina Burana, to be performed by the UK Symphony and Lexington Singers, is a cantata by Carl Orff based on 24 medieval poems and songs. Sure, you probably don't know most of the work, but you certainly have heard the piece's most familiar part, O Fortuna. That dramatic, battle-ready melody has to be a contender for the most appropriated classical work in pop culture, particularly if someone wants to illustrate something like, oh, mortal conflict.
As Time magazine described it: "It's the go-to piece for any director or editor who wants to ramp up the drama or conflict or doom."
The piece begins with a slow, ominous ramp-up by the chorus, culminating in a thunderous crash of percussion and a vocal gale that brings to mind images of hordes of soldiers spilling over a mountainside (for our purposes, we'll imagine them wearing a certain shade of blue).
UK Symphony Orchestra director John Nardolillo says the piece, whose title translates to Oh, Fortune, should be well known to Wildcats 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 also has been used in The Hunt for Red October and in the opening-credit sequence for Jackass: The Movie; in the Fox TV series Glee, to set up the conflict between Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) and Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison); in numerous wrestling and ultimate-fighting shows and by their participants; and in commercial campaigns, including Gatorade's.
Nardolillo says that part of O Fortuna's greatness is that it is so easily appropriated.
"You hear it over and 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," he 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 says 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," he says. (For the record, the lyrics begin like this: "Oh, Fortune, variable as the moon, always dost thou wax and wane.") "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."
The last line of the piece ends, "Let us mourn together, for fate crushes the brave."
Nardolillo confirmed that 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, which opened in September.
But he says that the looming competition might add a little spice to Friday's performance. The symphony shares a number of musicians who also play with the UK Pep Band.
"Our kids are basketball fans and Kentucky fans," Nardolillo says. "All the kids that are playing the piece that are fans of the team will have the same association fans have."