The Sacramento Choral Calendar
DECEM: A Hildegard Vespers - April 3, 2016
by James Majalis
Many listeners who hear Gregorian or Ambrosian chant picture hooded monks in a limestone cloister denying themselves worldly pleasures and earthly goods while monotonously intoning litanies to the glory of God. While the Middle Ages were a time in which faith provided both clarity of purpose and the bedrock of daily existence, the clerical focus tended to be on how humankind arrived at their fallen state with most of the blame going to Eve for her role in Adam’s corruption. The Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (Germany) accepted the belief that mankind suffered for the sins of the Original Couple but her love of God and for the beauty of all life on Earth inspired her to celebrate her faith through some of the most personal and aspiring music ever written. While there has been a resurgence of interest in her music in recent decades, she is rarely performed except in arenas where her name is a known academic quantity and partly because there are few groups willing or able to take on such spiritually challenging and musically taxing work.
Vox Musica, Sacramento’s marvelous women’s chorus, gave two performances of Hildegard’s music over the weekend, one in its native environment, a cathedral; the other in a performance space like a warehouse with abstract art on the walls. Each setting brought out different strengths and certain advantages to the singers and to the music, revealing the great originality of Hildegard’s compositions. On Saturday night, Vox sang at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament on K Street where the lushness and deeply meditative qualities of the music stood in stark and telling contrast to the noisy nightlife just outside the cathedral doors. Here the music had an ethereal, shall we say heavenly quality, a graceful and gentle arc from the first pedal tone to the last sigh into silence. On Sunday evening, they performed at Beatnik Studios, where their candle-lit performance had a much more earthy quality in which the singers’ virtuosity was most evident.
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The stamina of the women of Vox Musica is remarkable. For more than a very quickly passing hour, they sustained the soaring melisma of Hildegard’s musical visions with no signs of fatigue or flagging inspiration. For a non-musician, it would be like having a high-pitched, hour-long conversation, with each word spoken stretched for several seconds with barely a breath in between, all over a vocal drone that never ceases. Indeed, much of Hildegard’s music is conversational, both with God and with one’s own soul, requiring a solo verse and an ensemble response. At the cathedral, where both the singers and the audience occupied the entire sanctuary in the apse, the naturally reverberant acoustics created glorious harmonies that would not have existed in a drier acoustic. At Beatnik, there was still great reverberation but the individual voices leaped out in greater relief, perhaps because they sang in the round. The solo voices of Susanna Peeples and Mary Frank were particularly affecting; deep, opulently colored readings that were perfect for Hildegard’s sensual words. By concert’s end the entire choir seemed a little shocked by the beauty of their sound. I could not help noticing that many members of the audience seemed stunned by the beauty of the music and the performance. The cathedral concert left some listeners in tears. The Beatnik studios performance brought a standing ovation.
Adding to the authenticity of the performance, guest artist Diana Silva, a faculty member of the UC Davis music department and a chant scholar, played the Vielle (a precursor to the violin and cello) or diatonic medieval harp for several sequences. The little interjections of melody resembling folk music were reminders that instrumental liturgical music was still a couple hundred years away, yet as painters of the era depicted, instruments could also be used to praise God and His realm. Three readings of Hildegard’s visionary writings were beautifully spoken by Terrie McGraw, Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Sacramento State University.
Music Director and Founder Daniel Paulson, usually conducting in front of the chorus, simply led the group onto stage and then sat down with the audience. The women sang without conductor, with only eye contact and graceful body motions to keep the ensemble together. Though there were moments of slight infelicities of intonation and occasionally tenuous entrances, the singers never slipped out of the ecstatic state they created.
Over the ten years of the group’s existence, Paulson’s programming and preparation have been utterly original and inspiring. I know of no group in the Sacramento Valley, vocal or instrumental, that presents concerts so beautifully conceived and lovingly presented. The next concert set on May 22 will be both a showcase for new compositions (the results of an annual competition that Vox holds for local composers) and a community sing-along. I will not miss it — nor should you.