July 01, 2021


Hildegard von Bingen: Ordo virtutum. Seraphic Fire conducted by Patrick Dupre Quigley. SFM (Seraphic Fire Media). $16.99.

Manifesto: Vocal works by Roger Treece, Timothy C. Takach, Ysaÿe M. Barnwell, David Lang, Libby Larsen, Joseph Gregorio, Sydney Guillaume, Paul John Rudoi, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Dale Warland. Cantus. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate: Lowak Shoppala’ (Fire and Light). Richard Ray Whitman, narrator; Stephen Clark, baritone; Chelsea Owen and Meghan Vera Starling, sopranos; Lynn Moroney and Wes Studi, storytellers; Chickasaw Nation Children’s Chorus, Chickasaw Nation Dance Troupe and Nashville String Machine conducted by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. Azica. $16.99.

     The long-lived (1098-1179) and now very famous Hildegard von Bingen was canonized as recently as 2012, but her place in music seems to have been quite firmly cemented and to be well-established not only for Catholics but also for concertgoers with particular interest in the ways in which music from nearly 900 years ago can still connect with listeners today. Ordo virtutum (which can be thought of as “The Play of the Virtues,” although the first Latin word has no real English equivalent) is a fascinating hour-long symbolic drama in which the soul calls on the virtues (Hope, Charity, Chastity, Obedience, etc.); invokes and is supported by the Queen of the Virtues, Humility; refuses and overcomes the temptations of the Devil; and eventually triumphs and has the satisfaction of seeing the Devil bound and rendered harmless. A new Seraphic Fire CD on the group’s own label proffers the first complete recording of Ordo virtutum (which is briefly introduced by an anonymous Introit), and is an exceptional experience for anyone interested in medieval church music, dramas of the Middle Ages beyond Passion Plays, and the history of choral writing and performance. Ordo virtutum is surprisingly modern in conception – or perhaps it is better to say that Hildegard von Bingen was exceptionally in tune with eternal verities and effective ways to present them. Being the leader of the nuns of an abbey, she wrote the music of Ordo virtutum strictly for female voices – but the Devil is indispensable to the material, and appears not only as the sole male character but also as the only non-singer: he speaks, even rants, but does not sing. Just as Shakespeare, much later, indicated the class of characters by assigning speeches of poetry to some while confining others to prose, so Ordo virtutum emphasizes constantly that the uplift of music is associated solely with God and virtue; indeed, for mainstream Europeans in the 12th century, music had no purpose except spiritual elevation (a stance that provided fertile ground for the Goliards, of whom Hildegard von Bingen surely could not have approved). The topic of Ordo virtutum is scarcely one to which many people will gravitate in so one-sided a manner today, and the Latin of the drama is no longer a language that many people can understand, much less speak. But thanks to the genuine emotional strength that Patrick Dupre Quigley helps bring forth from Seraphic Fire, thanks to the sheer beauty of the vocal lines and the clever structure of the drama (including the introduction of each section by differently tuned bells), Ordo virtutum speaks with a universality and intensity that overcome language, cultural and social barriers to quite a remarkable extent. The purity and sincerity of the material transcend the specifics of the words and the drama, delivering a highly engaging experience that, while assuredly not for a wide modern audience, speaks directly to the heart for those inclined to listen to it.

     A smaller but equally skilled vocal ensemble, the all-male, eight-member group Cantus, offers some contemporary material in Latin and/or with a modern spiritual orientation on a new Signum Classics CD bearing the title Manifesto. Except for the equal excellence of the singing, this CD is something of the opposite of Seraphic Fire’s: the single intense focus of Ordo virtutum is nowhere to be found, with Cantus instead offering a variety of differing emotional touchpoints as explored and interpreted by 10 different composers. Four of the 10 works draw on a Cantus program called “The Four Loves,” those being the ancient Greek notions of romantic love (David Lang’s Manifesto, from which the CD gets its title), love between friends (Roger Treece’s Philia), love of family (Joseph Gregorio’s To My Brother), and divine love (Ysaÿe M. Barnwell’s Tango with God). But these four topically related works do not appear in sequence on the disc, so whatever their joint focus might have been in concept, it is missing here, leaving the audience to listen to them as individual pieces without any particular context. Or perhaps it is fairer to say that, to some extent, the original four-loves concept is expanded and deepened here, since Philia is followed on the disc by Timothy C. Takach’s Luceat Eis, whose Latin helps provide a sense of transcending time and bypassing modernity – in the service of a work to commemorate service members who died during the terrorist mass murders of September 11, 2001. The underlying sentiment here is from the gospel of John, wherein appears the idea that the greatest love one can show comes from laying down one’s life for one’s friends. It is in the emotional involvement that Cantus brings to Takach’s work – and to those by Lang, Treece, Gregorio and Barnwell – that the four tenors, two baritones and two basses show the quality of their expressive as well as musical abilities. Cantus is known for its multifaceted vocal programming, and that is certainly in evidence here, given the Greek “forms of love” material, the Biblical references and, in Libby Larsen’s case, Shakespeare: If I profane with my unworthiest hand… uses words from Romeo and Juliet. Throughout the disc, the overall impression is of vocal purity, even though the words of specific pieces are not always juxtaposed to particularly good effect. Thus, the last four works here are Gagòt by Sydney Guillaume (a Haitian Creole song about finding peace amid chaos); Song of Sky and Sea by Paul John Rudoi (an extended four-song cycle, the longest work on the disc by far, with texts from ancient Persian mystic poets); Psalm of the Soul by Sarah Kirkland Snider (about looking inward rather than out ward as a spiritual seeker); and Evening Stars by Dale Warland (based on poems by Sara Teasdale and focused on loss and eventual recovery). Ideally, listeners will piece together a narrative of feelings from their own experiences that will unite these works in ways that the sequence of pieces, on its own, does not. Another alternative is picking and choosing individual compositions based on one’s mood or thoughts at a given time – the smooth, nuanced sound of Cantus fits everything on the disc quite well, even if the disc itself does not quite fit together as a whole.

     A vocal experience of a different sort – one even more rarefied than anything from Seraphic Fire or Cantus – is to be had from an Azica Records release of a work by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate called Lowak Shoppala’ – which translates from the Chickasaw as “Fire and Light.” This is a very extended (80-minute) display of and cantata upon Chickasaw culture, directed entirely at listeners who wish to subsume themselves within the Chickasaw nation, its history and its customs, for a time. There is an underpinning here of religious/spiritual feeling quite different from that of Hildegard von Bingen but no less heartfelt in its own way – although perhaps somewhat more insistent, as its message is emphatically, even forcefully delivered by multiple speakers and with considerable solo, choral and instrumental involvement. English and Chickasaw narration and singing, chants and shouts and straightforward storytelling, are presented along with thoughts that seem calculated to provide meaningfulness – not as Cantus does, through beauty of expression, but instead with verbal insistence: “Once we hear, we can learn; once we learn, we can understand; once we understand, we are wiser; once we are wiser, we see clearly.” There are some interesting, brief portrayals here of individual clans: Chief, Bird, Alligator, Squirrel, Skunk, Panther and Raccoon. But they depend on descriptive words rather than bringing forth personalities musically – and indeed, Lowak Shoppala’ seems more like a sermon and history lesson than a musical experience, for all that it employs musical means at various points (and often to good effect). The sincerity of the composer and performers is clear, but the work engages more through its intent and its instances of exoticism of language and sound than through any strong attempt to pull a non-Chickasaw audience into understanding of and empathy with the Chickasaw nation. Although Lowak Shoppala’ is thoroughly modern, it does not make – and does not appear to seek – the level of spiritual/emotional connectivity with contemporary hearers that comes through from the almost millennium-old Ordo virtutum. Both works are admirable, and both are excellently performed (as indeed are the shorter pieces presented by Cantus). It is surprising, though, to find that in listening to both Ordo virtutum and Lowak Shoppala’, it is the newer work that seems to be more of a museum piece.

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