Armonia Nova's Elegant Hildegard

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hildegard von Bingen's music would seem to merit a performance for its survival alone. But during Armonia Nova's Saturday night concert at Christ Church on Capitol Hill, the 12th-century abbess's work -- the earliest of the Washington Early Music Festival's offerings -- proved value far beyond novelty.

Known for her plainchants, religious and scientific writings and the opera precursor "Ordo Virtutum," von Bingen herself is anything but plain. The spiritual visions she said she experienced from a young age inspired 13 books, art and poetry, and she was the most prolific composer of her age. She also corresponded with and advised religious leaders and kings.

Her music -- clearly and expertly explained by guest lecturer Jacqueline Horner Kwiatek -- is free-flowing and evocative. The single lines, often expressing devotion to the Virgin Mary, billow to ethereal high notes to describe a blooming flower or moment of ecstasy, and surge forward with cascading and rippling passages to symbolize fruition or power.

Armonia Nova's program was fresh, impassioned and elegantly presented. Each member of the vocal quartet displayed a different strength. Evanne Browne's clear, powerful soprano and stately presence were compelling; a willingness to use vibrato added lushness to Marjorie Bunday's bright, attractive mezzo; and Jay White's countertenor was pure and focused. Soprano Allison Mondel's range and interpretation were impressive, though her tone occasionally grew sour. Musical director and harpist Constance Whiteside and Craig Resta on vielle added sweet, rustic sound as well as delicacy and gravitas.

-- Ronni Reich

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