IN: Reviews

Pandora Animates Hildegard


The Pandora Consort brought what might be the boldest concert of SoHIP’s Summer 2024 season this past week to Emmanuel Church’s Lindsay Chapel, delivering examples of the nearly extraterrestrial music of mystic and composer St. Hildegard von Bingen, not only a capella (save for the bedrock tones of an uninvasive Indian-style harmonium), but also in creative combinations of solos, duets, and trios. However, even in the occasional section where two or three sang in unison, the individuals could not support each other in any typical sense of ensemble; only through harmony or polyphony, could this music soar like geese in a V formation. And soar they did! At times, the Chapel’s great vaulted ceiling seemed too shallow to contain the exuberance of Hildegard’s celestial gestures, which the threesome so joyously produced. Counter-intuitively, the chancel’s poor lighting intensified the immersion by draping the performers in an anonymizing shadow that hinted at the music’s intended function of meditation and reflection.

Kendra Comstock and Angie Tyler were joined by oft-collaborators Gina Marie Falk, soprano; and Cate Duckwall, a visual artist whose images sought to deliver more tangible manifestations of Hildigard’s mystical visions through a most literal example of the concert’s theme: “Hildegard Reanimated.” Duckwall’s visuals draw equally on elements of Christian art and oriental rug design. The frequent use of azure hues, illustrating Hildegard’s vision of the Woman in Sapphire Blue, neatly echoed with the stained glass within the Chapel’s elaborate reredos. Some of her images, projected on a screen to the left of the stage, matched the windows so perfectly I wondered were seeing a magnification of some small detail within architect Sir John Ninian Comper’s creation. Without references to dogmatic Christian imagery, Duckwall’s compositions presented a universalizing interpretation of Hildegard’s Marian devotion very much in line with the Consort’s pro-Feminist reading of the saintess’s work. The orbital animations of the final display proved a particularly touching effect as it evoked the feeling of a prayer wheel that spun around and around the words “how marvelous is the foreknowledge of the heart of God.”

The realizations of the music through a creative variety of orchestrations showcased three flavors of sopranos. For example, Angie Tyler and Kendra Comstock offered O pulcre facies as a duet which gave the audience a chance to appreciate the beauty of their voices together, separate, and together again. Comstock delivered her lines with a classic soprano sound that rejoiced in the beauty of natural vowels. Tyler’s tone was brighter with words possessing a more speech-like inflection. Together, their timbre amalgamated into a sweet, balanced chorus that, in the resonance, seemed to number into the dozens. Songs featuring all three singers, like O ignne Spiritus or O gloriosissimi lux vivens angeli, cranked this effect up to a virtual eleven. The audience delighted in the seamless exchange of parts when one singer would stop and another would start, and the creative polychoral-esque distribution deepened the impact of the material. Even in forte sections, when all three would sing in unison, the rhythmic freedom of the lines never felt compromised, and the enunciation even improved. Not every song used the harmonium [all three singers played it at times], but those that employed it benefited from the shaping of the static line through modulation of the instrument’s wind supply. The instrument’s sound organically rolled in and retreated like ocean tides beneath the voices.

Members of Pandora Consort:

Throughout the concert moments of improvisation graced the songs. The few moments of organum (the provision of parallel lines) around words like “Amen” gave an unexpected, satisfying, and insightful conclusions several times. The ensemble also added some wonderful elaborations. At times, the three sang out of time with each other, usually around a large, leaping gesture where they would utter the interval individually, resulting in a sound like canonic imitation. At other moments, the consort made ornamental gestures de-synchronously, resulting in undulations that would be utterly impossible to notate. The most exciting moment came in O viridissima virga when two singers produced drones while the third broke off for a solo. The effect was ethereal! Spine-tingling! Mystifying! I don’t believe the droners ever sang in unison; rather, they assumed a variety of intervals, sometimes a fifth, or octave, or twelfth, each suited to reflect the intensity of the soloist line. While the first drone may have been a wordless natural vowel, I believe the final drone took on the softest application of consonants and vowels drawn from the solo line to hint at what must be the inaudible song of angels that permeates the universe.

Despite the homogeneity of the repertoire, each song came across with a distinctive character resulting in a spectrum well-varied throughout the recital. Pandora delivered the obtuse, meterless songs in ways that I can only recognize as “fast,” “slow,” “affetuoso,” “scherzo,” and with other such terms. These affects passionately realized the unique meaning of each song, both textually and musically. I first noticed this after Ave Generosa (my personal favorite), before hearing Comstock’s relaxed, lamenting recitation of O virgo Ecclesia. She gave a noticeably more declamatory projection while maintaining a clear melodic core. The elegiac song featured some of the most intense harmonic moments of the night as Comstock reveled in the chant’s 7ths and 9ths that wedged themselves against the harmonium’s persistent sound. It was all too poetic that this song was the only one where the drone did not cut off with the last note but rather with the last ounce of breath to escape the bellows before evaporating into nothing. Tyler then delivered a startling dramatic performance of Nunc gaudeant, one of Hildegard’s most virtuosic pieces, before the close of the first half.

Once at the beginning and again about halfway through, the three women improvised an intonation of the subsequent section’s principal pitch. These moments seemed to grow spontaneously out of the keyboard’s reedy drone which first swelled in the hall through brightness and volume, as the harmonium’s brass reeds responded to changing air pressure, and then through a soaring vocalise produced by the seraphim on stage. These stunning moments of adoration seemed to last for both a second and for an hour and, in some way, still live in the minds of all who heard them.

A musicology PhD student at Boston University, Christopher Hodges earned a M.M. in organ performance with Peter Sykes.

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