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June 13, 2005

Chanticleer offers fitting homage to Hildegard

San Francisco Chronicle (CA):

Dedicated to the church by her family as a tithe, she founded a monastery, fashioned a secret language, wrote tracts on medicine and cookery, corresponded with emperors and popes, and composed some of the most progressive and enduring music of her age. An extraordinary woman calls for extraordinary measures. That was the impulse behind Chanticleer's "Hildegard: A Measure of Joy," a theatricalized musical tribute to the 12th century abbess and mystic, Hildegard von Bingen. The great male vocal ensemble performed the new 85- minute piece six times, concluding the run over the weekend at churches in San Francisco and Sacramento. It was a stretch for the company, at once enlivening and problematic.

Instead of standing and delivering in concert fashion, the 12 Chanticleer singers portrayed contentious cardinals, speaking lines and roaming about the sanctuary with candles and handbells. The fictional premise of Donna DiNovelli's book was simple. The cardinals have convened to discuss canonization of Hildegard as a saint. Her virtues as a creator and healer must be weighed against a putative lack of humility, her theological defiance of Rome on a disinterment matter and other issues. A ballot is taken in the end.

In theatrical terms, "Hildegard" proved to be something of an awkward enterprise in a performance at San Francisco's Calvary Presbyterian Church. DiNovelli's book delivered so much detail about the subject's life and deeds that the cardinals, who had presumably studied her record for 40 days, were largely expositional devices. The Chanticleer performers tried gamely, and often too earnestly, to enliven their stiffly fashioned roles; they also played village penitents and even Hildegard herself at one point. Line deliveries ran to heavily italicized declamations, weightily solemn, ironic or sarcastic.

But the true "Measure of Joy" here was musical, and that's where the splendors rightly came across. Four gorgeously absorbing pieces by Hildegard were fit into a musical mosaic that ran from plainsong to Giovanni Palestrina to contemporary works by Régis Campo and Steven Stucky commissioned for this world premiere. Francesca Zambello's fluid and spatially sensitive direction subtly enlarged and dramatically amplified the evening's majestic and probing polyphony. The singers moved as if by musical imperative, gathering, separating, distantly defying one another and drawn into harmonic accord.

Dressed in simple but handsome red robes that suggested their august positions without being too ponderously literal (designed by Anita Yavich), the Chanticleer cardinals assembled first in plainsong. A 13th century "Hec Dies," with its busily elaborate decorations, suggested the whirling complexity of the canonization debate to come. Right away, the men staked out their positions on Hildegard: "Did her touch not heal the sick?" "She skipped down the hallway." One of them sensibly suggested they "start with her songs." At that they launched into her "O frondens virga," a hymn to growing things.

Although her work is amply recorded, the marvels of Hildegard's music -- the twining melodic lines, rhythmic urgency, the loving evocation of the natural world and an uncanny modernity at terms -- blooms fully only when heard live. The Chanticleer ensemble, under Joseph Jennings' musical direction, rendered it all with radiant precision. Hildegard's celebration of evergreen trees ("O noblissima viriditas") was especially lovely, as the singers gathered around several open scores and seemed to learn the piece as they sang it, layering in freshly astonished new voices.

The evening's peak musical inspiration came in the scene that celebrated Hildegard's symbolic marriage to Christ. Here, Palestrina's ravishing "Veni sponsa Christi" flowed into a 20th century "Epithalame" by Jean Yves Daniel- Lesur. Hildegard's spirit rose out of time, spanning the centuries in this seamless elevation. As the vote on her sainthood approached, the musical plan left her own work behind for good. That was a dramatic and musical miscalculation. The evening concluded with the two commissioned pieces, along with another contemporary selection, by John Tavener. Stucky's final "Song of Humility" made a fervent but tiresomely redundant case for the cult of Hildegard. The last notes ought to have been hers. What better way to measure the power and glory of Hildegard than in her own musical voice?

Posted by acapnews at June 13, 2005 3:45 PM