Two “Visionary Women” have evoked probing musical expression as sung Saturday by the Cathedral Choral Society, conducted by J. Reilly Lewis, and the early music ensemble Eya. The afternoon concert at the Washington National Cathedral paid enthralling tribute to two mystics: the martyred 15th-century French heroine known as Joan of Arc and the 12th-century German abbess Hildegard von Bingen.
Rebels with a cause, both are celebrated for their visionary powers. Joan’s sacred/patriotic cause brought an early death at the stake. But her martyrdom has long prompted a wealth of expressions in music, plays and cinema. Over recent decades, Hildegard’s gilded and ornamented chants have broken into the concert arena. Her flowing melodies and poems and theological writings were “avant-garde” for her cloistered female world despite a monastic ban on women interpreting Scripture. (And don’t think all societal restrictions on women in creative works have been lifted.)
Saturday’s concert opened with Lewis conducting the chorus and hand bells in a solemn “Te Deum,” a liturgical hymn favored by Joan of Arc. Its resonant antiphonal style sonorously rebounded between women’s and men’s voices, a perfect prelude to the program.
Eya, a remarkable, unaccompanied quartet of women’s voices, delivered two of Hildegard’s florid chants, one an intense allegory of “Celestial Harmony.” Eya also included an anonymous Latin 13th-century part song and a gorgeous medieval chanson of Guillaume Dufay. Eya delivered these with precise ensemble, a strong sense of presence and ringing vowels that reverberated to the farthest reaches of the cathedral.
Eya was followed by Lewis conducting his chorus, soloists and orchestra in American composer Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light,” his music for the soundtrack of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” shown on a screen in front of the chorus.
Einhorn’s much-acclaimed work (which premiered in 1994) seeks to evoke Dreyer’s imagery in his tortuous, haunting account of Joan’s trial for heresy, followed by the horrifying scene of her death. Dreyer focuses principally on facial expressions that by themselves fully relate the story of the court proceedings and Joan’s suffering.
I don’t agree with a slew of critics raising Einhorn’s music up as an “oratorio that could stand alone.” (A quick pre-performance perusal of the program shows its texts pouring forth in Latin, Old and Middle French and Italian, based on excerpts from the Bible and writings of Hildegard and other medieval women mystics and martyrs.) But how can the work be labeled an oratorio when the audience can’t read these texts during the performance — due to the darkness need for the screening — to understand the music? Also, I found Einhorn’s attempts at re-creating medieval musical style a bit gauche and, at its best, sounding like Carl Orff’s raucous “Carmina Burana.” Einhorn’s piece, however, was beautifully rendered by Lewis’s forces with meticulous ensemble, buoyancy and attention to the gripping innuendos of the screen drama.
Porter is a freelance writer.