IN: Reviews

Tuned Team of Vocal Messengers in Hildegard


Hildegard von Bibgen
Hildegard von Bingen

The reverberant Church of the Advent, enmeshed in “Anima, visions of Hildegard’s Ordo Virtutum,” became a sublime summertime lunchtime getaway Wednesday. For this Boston Early Music Festival Fringe Event, two of the city’s premiere vocal ensembles teamed up for a “new telling of Ordo Virtutum, weaving Hildegard von Bingen’s mystical chants with the music of local composer Patricia Van Ness.”

Tapestry with Shira Kammen, vielle and harp, and Viriditas, the Night Song Women’s Schola, soared throughout the acoustically sympathetic spaces of the Beacon Hill church. At the melodic urgings of the vielle in front of the vestibule, Night Song’s “Anima” began. This very old instrument next turned into a drone supporting the small ensemble of voices gathered round. Everything Kammen played on both instruments stunned, her rare medieval flair enrapturing.

Out of linear unison purity would pop the “perfect fifth” as it is known to theorists. This interval, a medieval preference, would appear harmonically gorgeously, righteously over and again. Minute moves such as this during the three-quarters of an hour of non-stop singing would catch the ear off guard. The ear would be otherwise bent on following the near continuous mellifluousness flow of the all-female ensembles.

Then, the singers processed using the outer aisles to reach the front of the nave. Within a gamut of three tones, a truly mind-bending Steve Reich type of looping from the two queues startled. Yet, throughout “Anima,” Director Cristi Catt kept a close eye not only on spatial aspects of the performance—devising numerous configurations that lent themselves to 4-D, or spacetime—but also on other attributes that brought great depth to this “transformance,” a coinage Night Song, chose as a replacement for “performance,” to describe “an inner journey toward peace and clarity, centering and spiritual renewal.”

Christi Catt, Shira Kammen, and the fourteen vocalists, seven taking roles as the cast of characters and the others in roles as the virtues, all figured in this streaming spacetime vision of Hildegard abounding with opulence. Each voice intercalating its own remarkable qualities and naturalness allowed for a vast musical vibrancy coupled with restrained theatrical affect.

Interspersed with the precision chanted monophonies, were the polyphonic works, four in all, by Patricia Van Ness. “Awakenings” was composed especially for “Anima” and, as with the other pieces, knit almost seamlessly with Hildegard’s songs. Van Ness’ polyphonies are a consonant, conjunct continuum wherein infrequent but clear and magical flashes of discord appeared.

Anima concluded with Van Ness’ lengthy Nada te turbe (Let nothing frighten you), Tapestry and Viriditas standing in a circle at the altar.

It could be said that “visions” were the stuff of this Hildegard undertaking. A “telling” it was not. The program offered no Latin texts, only some lines in English for the excerpts from Order of Virtues. And not much more than titles were given for Van Ness’ music. Early on we read in the printed program: “[Instrumental] “Anima’s Seduction and Struggle with the Devil;” disappointingly, no comparable vocalizations were to be heard.

Altogether, “Anima” was a dynamic sonic sensation and because of this yielded no trance or true meditative states. The only clues as to what was transpiring (the texts were near impossible to discern) in this abridged allegorical play came from a most beautifully tuned team of vocal messengers.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

Comments Off on Tuned Team of Vocal Messengers in Hildegard