‘Ordo Virtutum’ review: sister act 1

In Mulieribus's mix of theater, music and explanation at Chamber Music Northwest proved too much of a good thing

Last month, I went to a concert, and a college lecture broke out. In Mulieribus’s Chamber Music Northwest performance of music by Hildegard of Bingen and other composers at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium contained some glorious singing, intermittently compelling theater, and informative talk. Unfortunately, all those tasty ingredients made for an indigestible stew. Here’s how it went down. (All timings approximate.)

In Mulieribus sang music by Hildegard of Bingen and other composers at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

7:30 pm. Concert scheduled to start.

7:40 pm. CMNW executive director Peter Bilotta gives his usual affable introduction, and introduces In Mulieribus and IM board member and Portland conductor and music prof Scott Tuomi. Instead of singing, In Mulieribus members take their seats in chairs on stage while Tuomi reads from prepared text a biography of Hildegard of Bingen, and information about an Italian Renaissance composer, one Giaocomo Fogliano.

7:50 pm. In Mulieribus at last rises and sings a three-minute piece by Fogliano chosen in part because it uses the words “In Mulieribus” (“among women”). The singers return to their seats.

7:53 pm. Tuomi talks — or rather reads — more about Hildegard and about the music of the next composer, Seattle choral director Karen Thomas.

7:59 pm. In Mulieribus rises and sings Thomas’s Hildegard-inspired O virtus sapientiae. Its spiraling melodies provided recognizable references to Hildegard’s own music, while its slightly astringent harmonies and irregular rhythms placed it firmly in the present.

They sit.

8:03 pm. Tuomi expatiates on the featured composer, Hildegard.

8:08 pm. In Mulieribus sings Hildegard’s Caritas abundant. They return to their chairs.

8:12 pm. Tuomi talks about the next composer on the program, Britain’s Tarik O’Regan, one of today’s most important and engaging young choral composers.

8:16 pm. In Mulieribus sings O’Regan’s Columba aspexit, which like Thomas’s work sets Hildegard’s words. They exit.

8:20 pm. Tuomi talks about the main course, Hildegard’s morality play Ordo Virtutum.

8:30 pm. Actors Isaac Lamb, Chantal DeGroat, Dana Green, Maureen Porter and Alex Ramirez de Cruz give a staged reading, in English, of Ordo Virtutum.

This proved a mixed blessing. The Play of the Virtues essentially enacts a theological debate in which a human soul chooses between Satan’s temptations and heaven’s promise. But instead of an imaginary little devil figure on one shoulder and an angel on the other, those divergent paths were represented by respected Portland actor Isaac Lamb as Old Nick, opposed by the Virtues, voiced by angelic singers of In Mulieribus in the actual performance after intermission, and by the four female actors in the pre-intermission dramatic reading of an English translation of Hildegard’s Latin origial.

Just as in Paradise Lost, the devil (as diabolically played by Lamb) often seems more sexily attractive than the sometimes hectoring Virtues. (Maybe that’s appropriate to the story — he’s supposed to be a persuasive tempter, after all.) In the dramatic reading, Lamb’s fluent, apparently memorized performance was far livelier than the Virtues, imprisoned behind music stands, yet still occasionally missing lines. When speaking in unison, they adopted a kind of stifling, ritualized chant that felt far more labored than when they were freed to deliver solo lines with feeling. When In Mulieribus repeated the script, this time with music but sung in the original Latin, in the second half, the echoes of the dramatic reading made it easy to know what exactly was going on. But essentially the same effect could have been achieved with supertitles, which would have cut the running time by about 20 minutes.

8:50 pm. Intermission.

Now, let it be noted that Hildegard  —  healer, philosopher, adversary and ally of popes and emperors, a great leader of the sisters of her nunnery, and of course one of the greatest composers of her millennium — actually lived one of the most fascinating lives of any composer (I know, I wrote a play about it), and it certainly deserves recounting. And granted, context is especially important to apprehending just what’s going on in a medieval morality play, which arose in a quite different context from the stage entertainments we’re used to — more participatory ritual enactments of faith, worlds away from modern audience-aimed naturalistic acting and other dramatic techniques.

Let’s also stipulate that Tuomi did exactly what he was asked to do by In Mulieribus, and did it well. His relatively concise segments were engagingly delivered, fairly lively, informative, mostly avoided academese, and at times apparently well received by those audience members who were not nodding off (I saw more than a few). Over the course of the evening, his interpolated lectures presented at least half a dozen scholarly citations, carefully included birth and death dates of several composers, provided an etymology of Hildegard’s name, discuss a famous Renaissance composer (Josquin Desprez) whose music didn’t even appear on the program, alluded to a scholarly debate over whether the featured work of the evening, which seemed to recede ever farther into the future, was actually supposed to be performed in four parts or five, and more.

As a college prof myself for the better part of 20 years, I’ve endured many more ponderous presentations at academic conferences and other lectures, and doubtlessly delivered some myself. And as the author of a composer biography that involves hundreds of pages of music history, I certainly appreciate the value of everything Tuomi said and the affable way he said it.

The problem wasn’t what he said nor how he said it — but when he said it. Tuomi’s polished presentation would have been been perfect for a talk offered before the concert. In fact, CMNW offers exactly such an opportunity: its pre-concert Musical Conversations, which allow the audience to choose to attend or not. His lecture could also have simply been included in the program, and posted on the IM and CMNW websites so that patrons could read it before the show on.

By the time intermission mercifully arrived, we had been sitting in the lecture, er, concert hall for 90 minutes, which included 13 minutes of actual music (all well chosen and performed) and another 15 or so of dramatic reading. No wonder about 20 percent of the audience failed to return after intermission, knowing that we still had 20 minutes of restroom/refreshment/merch table break and then another 80 minutes of performance still to come.

Devil defeated: In Mulieribus and guests including Isaac Lamb performed Hildegard’s ‘Play of the Virtues’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Which is really a shame, because they missed a superbly sung and staged version of Hildegard’s music drama. Equipped with a voice synthesizer that pulled his register down into deep bass (think Laurie Anderson’s old device) and then slung it up into creepy Exorcist shriek, Lamb made an extremely effective devil, although I never quite figured out exactly what his mask signified.

The In Mulieribus singers, resplendent in cheerfully cheesy (LED-lit?) haloed headgear, started their singing on stage and moved down to the floor, where most of the dialogue with Satan (Lamb) and the Soul (a white-garbed Hannah Penn) took place in a kind of improvised thrust stage, with most of the audience facing the action in the Kaul risers, and two sections of audience members in chair on either side of the action. (This arrangement, necessary to fit the sellout crowd, inevitably made it harder for those of us sitting in the back rows on the floor to see all the action.)

Even amid 80 minutes of monophony (single melodic line), the IM singers’ voices were so distinctive that you could tell who was singing even with eyes closed, giving the unison singing a kind of harmony of timbre. Astute lighting effects and movement avoided the potential monotony of what is after all a debate about morality with a foregone conclusion. Lamb and Penn even ranged up into the risers, keeping our eyes moving. The only dramatic misstep produced premature applause, although that might also have been due to impatience as the clock approached 10:30 pm, when the show finally ended.

Most of the IM/CMNW audience is, alas, well past the stage where they need to rush home to relieve the babysitters, but if classical music groups are ever to attract those coveted younger audiences, getting them home before 11 pm from a 730 concert might help.

We’ve inveighed against overlong concerts and even intermissions often on ArtsWatch. We understand that the road to tedium is paved with good intentions: wanting to offer the audience plenty of material for their money.

But we also maintain that most audiences would enjoy a solid hour of compelling music more than slack two hour endurance contest. And by embedding the brief musical performances amid all that explanation — which went on longer than the singing in the first half — In Mulieribus miscalculated, turning their own performance into illustrations of Tuomi’s lecture, rather than the reverse. It amounted to the musical converse of an illuminated medieval manuscript. And by not announcing this arrangement in advance, nor giving the audience the opportunity to opt out if we wanted to hear the music, In Mulieribus’s intended generosity felt merely inconsiderate and disrespectful of the audience’s time.

The experience would have been quite different had we gone in with accurate expectations — and been given the choice to skip them and just show up for the music. And the shame is, that hour of Ordo Virtutum would have been plenty satisfying, with or without the introductory set of songs, and without the extended explanations and staged reading.

In fact, a single, no-intermission performance of a little over an hour is pretty much what transpired in the very next Chamber Music Northwest music/theater performance, which we’ll tell you about tomorrow.

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One Response. Have your say.

  1. bob priest says:

    OMG, nooooooooooo, not another overly long concert! Please, Sir/Madame, can I have less, please?

    Yes, I once put on a two hours & forty five minutes slog of an event & heard about it for years afterwards. Well, I guess it was a memorable evening of sorts!!

    PS
    I’m a Wagner fan.

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