A Reverent Salute to von Bingen

Monday, June 30, 2008

Chamber choirs Carmina and Illuminare brought medieval music and words to life in an uplifting performance on Saturday afternoon at St. Mark's Episcopal Church. The penultimate concert of the Washington Early Music Festival featured the 12th-century writings of Hildegard von Bingen.

Illuminare's 12 sopranos blossomed from the rear of the church in von Bingen's "Kyrie." The unison melody rose and fell sweetly with each verse and the choir clung to the ends of phrases so that they melted away like sugar. In subsequent selections, sustained tones beneath the melodies underscored the simple elegance of the singular vocal lines and the expressions imbued within them.

The women's choir alternated songs with Carmina's 10 male singers, whose vocal textures were striking in "Rex Caeli," written in the 9th century by an anonymous composer. There, the baritones sounded an earthy, primeval ringing as the tenors sang tenderly above. The harmonies in "Procurans Odium" took on a dramatic twist, with some of the chordal elements creating momentary dissonances.

Both groups under director Vera Kochanowsky flowed through the Latin verses with ease and maintained a gentle, precise quality in their voices. They blended so well that only in von Bingen's "O Ecclesia" did individual timbres emerge in shapely solos.

Interspersing readings from von Bingen's letters and essays throughout the concert illuminated the composer's character and made one wish that we heard her music more often.

-- Grace Jean


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