Any way you slice it, Hildegard of Bingen was a fascinating character. Illuminated manuscripts depict the 12th-century abbess, poet, composer and mystic sitting in a chair, dictating one of her visions to a monk, with her head on fire. She studied botany to learn how to heal the sick, and today is considered the founder of natural science in Germany. She was also a woman who refused to take no for an answer. When a local bishop declined to let Hildegard build a new convent, she went over his head for permission and built it anyway. Her music was like no one else’s and, 800 years later, still speaks with a joy and conviction all its own.
Friday night at Washington National Cathedral, the Folger Consort presented a concert of Hildegard’s music. The Consort’s founders, Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall, were joined by instrumentalists Shira Kammen and Christa Patton and vocal ensemble Trio Eos, whose members are sopranos Michele Kennedy and Jessica Beebe and mezzo-soprano Maren Montalbano. The striking inspiration of their program was to stand the pure, ecstatic expression of Hildegard’s music like a giant trellis, up through which grew and blossomed the works of three contemporary women composers, Susan Botti, Shulamit Ran and Kate Soper.
Trio Eos is more than an ensemble of three beautiful voices capable of exquisite blending. It is also three pairs of ears, so acutely tuned that Eos can sing the closest harmony, even the microtonal intervals of Botti, with breathtaking ease and accuracy.
Selections from Soper’s “Songs for Nobody,” Botti’s “Bird Songs” and Ran’s “Credo/Ani Ma’Amin” nestled seamlessly in the bouquet of Hildegard’s “Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations” as though they belonged there. It was a pleasure hearing the creative voices of women, ancient and contemporary, impart a message of beauty and wisdom.