Russ Hunt's Reviews

Ordo Virtutum

Boston Early Music Festival
6 November 1998

[from a posting to the HUNTS list]

OK, what can I say? That it was worth the seven hour drive and more? At least. We've never seen or heard anything like this.

It began with three musicians in medieval costume -- two violas or violins (neither, really; about halfway between: they called them medieval fiddles in the program) and a wooden flute -- slowly processing out into the chancel. They stood there a bit and I think nine or ten women, in subtly differentiated white robes -- with slightly varied ornaments or garments under the robes -- processed out too. The lights went down, and then out altogether, leaving the women illuminated, and some male voices, from a loft overhead, began a chant. There's a story behind this -- they're the patriarchs and prophets, welcoming or admiring the new testament virtues, represented by the women. The whole thing is an allegory. There's an exchange between the male voices and the female voices, and the rest of the evening is carried on by the three instruments, the female voices, and a male figure, the devil, who shouts rather than sings.

Two or three things were particularly amazing. The whole business was sort of reminiscent of a mass or something, with people moving deliberately and slowly, and gesturing sort of ceremonially, the way someone celebrating mass might, to various parts of the stage which had been built across the front of the chancel, and down the center aisle. The whole thing is structured as a sort of conversation, sometimes with eight or nine women's voices together, sometimes with one voice representing a virtue, and often an utterance was accompanied by a gesture or movement -- at one point toward the end, for instance, Satan shouts something from down the center aisle and all the virtues simultaneously raise their hands in a sort of fending-off gesture. Satan's last action is a kind of balletic or mime-ish gesture of defeat, his hand crossed, palms out, over his forehead, withering like a struck spider. At one point one of the women (we figured out later, from the program, that she was Innocence) was standing silently behind the others, next to the chancel rail, and there was an amazing dramatic power because you knew she was there for a reason and was eventually going to do something. Eventually she did come forward and sing, then went back, and then at another point she picked up a bouquet of three lilies which was laced on the rail, brought it forward, and held it next to one of the other characters while she sang. It was utterly compelling, all of it, and I have no idea why.

Well, not no idea. The music was absolutely incredible. We bought the CD, but I'm sure it won't be the same, in part because people were moving around and voices were separated and came back together -- the musicians, for instance, played all the way down the center aisle at one point. And there was a confrontation between Satan and the Virtues: the first time he appeared, shouting, it was as startling as anything I've heard in a theatre -- right in the middle of all this lovely, lush Hildegard female voice chanting comes this harsh, nasty male shout. Amazing. I don't think I've ever heard an hour and a half's worth of music that had so many moments that just gave you chills. There were intervals with just the instruments that I thought were unbelievable -- three completely different lines, fit together in a harmonic structure unlike anything I know. And there were segments where the instruments -- mostly the fiddles -- laid down a drone under the chant that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck. The pitch and intonation were absolutely, utterly perfect, and when the strings droned it was absoutely even -- you couldn't hear that the bow was reversing at all: just one pure tone. Voices became strings, and strings voices, imperceptibly (not that they were the same; they were very different. Just that you couldn't tell when the change occurred.

But the best thing was those damned women's voices. They were all different -- I was amazed I could hear so much difference between them -- but all had that absolutely non-operatic, pure, fluid, musical tone -- no strain, no edge, but incredible power. So much power I still can't believe it -- way more power than opera singers. Any one of them just filled the church -- OK, the acoustics really are wonderful, but still: these women were all in the same league with the Anonymous Four (not quite so pure and perfectly blended, but they didn't want to be), every one of them. And together, well, hell, never heard anything like it, as I said. At one point there was what amounted to a duet between the wooden flute and one of the sopranos, and it was heartbreaking -- you couldn't tell which was accompanying the other, or even, sometimes, which was which (you'd realize that only the flute or the voice was left on a note and you couldn't tell when the other had dropped out). There were a couple of alto voices with a warmth that I could just barely believe -- they'd hit these notes and you'd be amazed that the people near them didn't just melt.

It may be that the most powerful thing about the evening was the realization of what a genius Hildegard must have been. The phrasing, the power, the little edges where seconds made the hair stand up on the back of your neck, the way emotion got built into what's always seemed to me the fundamentally tranquil tone of plainchant (or whatever you call this stuff) by building onto its basic structure . . . all of that makes it clear -- to me, anyway -- that Hildegard isn't just a convenient figure to match a lot of contemporary agendas (she is that, but she isn't, by a long shot, just that). This piece is an achievement that deserves to have lasted 900 years. Some of this power may be Sequentia, but it's built on a solid core that Hildegard put there.

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