Voce’s musical salute to Hildegard von Bingen

Voce's celebration of the music and verse of Catholicism’s unique medieval feminist Hildegard von Bingen brings her into our own time with reverence and style.

Composite image. Left: Illumination from the "Liber Scivias" (roughly, "Book of Knowledge of the Ways") showing Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe and secretary; Right: "Universal Man," an illumination from a 13th-century copy of Hildegard von Bingen's "Liber Divinorum Operum" ("Book of Divine Works", c. 1165). Public domain images via Wikipedia entry on Hildegard of Bingen.

WASHINGTON, May 14, 2017 – Just two years shy of celebrating its 30th anniversary, Northern Virginia-based Voce is a vocal chamber ensemble (membership by audition) that explores a wide range of music ranging from Renaissance and medieval choral music to the works of more modern composers. The latter category includes compositions by still living American composers, some of them commissioned by Voce itself.

Voce’s most recent concerts, staged last weekend at Reston Virginia’s St. John Neumann Church and Vienna Virginia’s Church of the Holy Comforter, featured an eclectic and uplifting selection of choral music both by and associated with legendary medieval religious leader Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179).

In an era when women were, perhaps, regarded as third-class citizens at best, Hildegard quite literally “did it all.” She was a nun, a Benedictine abbess and a theological mystic with a remarkable talent for the inspired religious metaphor. But she also was a writer, composer and philosopher of considerable repute and was eventually declared a Doctor of the Church, a singular honor. Today, she is also regarded by many in Europe as the founder of German scientific natural history.

Voce’s recent choral program riffed on the religious mysticism of this spiritual visionary, offering a primarily contemporary program largely derived from Hildegard’s uniquely ecstatic religious poetry and verse as well as other religious verse penned by English poet Edmund Spenser, Pope John Paul II and others, as set to music that expressed the Divine Vision with a variety of musical approaches, some of them highly original.

After opening the concert with one of Hildegard’s own works, “Karitas habundat in omnia” (“Charity abounds in all things”), contemporary composers Frank Ferko, Jonathan Dove, James MacMillan, Paul Halley and the late Polish master Henryk Górecki were represented on Voce’s program in addition to a composition by 20th century English composer Sir William Henry Harris (1883-1973).

A pair of works composed by young guest organist, pianist and composer Andrew Jonathan Welch were also on the program.

Most of Voce’s selections were sung a cappella, while a few songs and hymns were accompanied by piano or organ. The key to this concert’s success was Voce’s notable skill in navigating, unaccompanied, complex, multi-part scores and composers’ tight, precise harmonies without drifting off-key, no mean feat as any choral singer will tell you, particularly when voices begin to fatigue.

The focal point of this pair of concerts was an unusual program of ecstatic religious and inspirational poetry and divine visions. These were set to primarily contemporary musical idioms that echoed the reverence and religious intent of the texts rather than drawing attention to themselves, a modest surprise in our modern era where showy performance techniques can and do overshadow the meaning of religious texts.

Each piece on Voce’s program exhibited its own unique charms, passions and religious fervor. But three compositions stood out as exceptional and innovative. They included a pair of works by Mr. Welch, based on verse-hymns by Hildegard – “Quia ergo femina mortem instruxit” (roughly, “Because a woman created death”) and “O gloriosissimi lux vivens angeli” (“O most glorious angels – living light”) – and a highly unusual setting of a traditional Holy Thursday Latin text, “Ubi caritas” (“Where there is love”), composed by Paul Halley.

Mr. Welch’s compositions, bursting at the seams with ecstatic musical visions, were skillfully sung by the ensemble, but benefited as well by his organ accompaniment (“Quia ergo”) and his thickly clustered, duo-piano accompaniment (“O gloriosissimi”) in which he was ably assisted by Voce’s regular accompanist, CJ Capen.

Paul Halley’s “Ubi caritas,” which concluded the program, was also this concert’s final and rather distinctive highlight.

Evidently, after encountering a Charles Ives-like moment during which he experienced Christian religious music in the foreground and African music in the distance, the composer re-created that sensation by composing a deeply religious yet hyper-kinetic musical hybrid. The musical tension and celebratory high point of this piece occurs when an African hymn of praise to the gods joyously intrudes on the traditional Latin “Ubi caritas,” merging with it to carry its transformative musical prayer to even greater heights.

To drive this heightened atmosphere, the composer at this point adds in some noisily effective African percussion, played with tasteful abandon in these performances by members of the ensemble. It was a fitting, uplifting way to end a most interesting choral performance of music one rarely gets to hear in the concert hall these days.

Rating: ***1/2 (Three and one-half out of four stars)

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