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Exercises in Devotion

Hildegard von Bingen abides. Her 900th birthday occurred sometime this year and has been lavishly celebrated. An eight-disc box on BMG Classics honors the event with a comprehensive anthology of her music, gently and respectfully updated by the performers most active in maintaining her sacred flame, the Cologne-based medieval-music ensemble known as Sequentia, founded in 1977 by American expatriates Benjamin Bagby and the late Barbara Thornton. Two weeks ago, high in the Brentwood hills in the handsome small Mary Chapel on the Mount St. Mary’s College campus — one of the Da Camera Society’s "Historic Sites" — 14 members of Sequentia performed Hildegard’s Ordo Virtutum, an allegorical disputation in which forces of good and evil battle to possess one faltering soul. (Guess who wins.)

It was an ennobling experience. Ninety minutes of meandering medieval song, unharmonized except for a few instances when a single string instrument might hold a long single note under a melodic gambit, didn’t seem a minute too long under the spell of the group’s elegant, pure singing. Afterward, the stars in the night sky and the distant city lights formed yet a further benediction. You can say what you want — and there’s a lot to be said — about the dangers of taking this ancient repertory too seriously, of imputing to the blessed Hildegard a degree of musical individuality to match her historic stature as a visionary and spiritual leader. (Oliver Sacks’ famous essay on Hildegard’s visions ascribes their inspiration to migraines.) The rediscovery of this woman composer — not even the first, according to some recent researches — two decades ago fell into the collective lap of the emergent feminist/musicologist crowd like a gift from heaven. One disc — catchily titled A Feather on the Breath of God (one of Hildegard’s more modest descriptions of herself), with music overarranged and sweetly sung by a pre-Sequentia group called Gothic Voices — and she became an instant media bonanza.

I used to be more upset about all this hoopla, about the process of tarting up ancient music of uncertain provenance in the quest for sexy press releases. Very little of the music we know and love, even from recent times, after all, reaches our ears the way its composers intended; Mozart gets played with modern clarinets, Verdi with the wrong-size trombones. What mattered most up at Mount St. Mary’s the other night was the chance to hear some wonderful singers, nicely costumed in a very beautiful space, performing exceptionally attractive music worthy of that setting and of our love.

Short takes on a full and rewarding week:

What the people of Sequentia bring to their chosen repertory of the very old, the dedicated souls of our own California EAR Unit lavish on the very new; both groups make common cause in the battle to save the world from Muzak. Actually, last week’s EAR Unit concert at the County Museum ranged somewhat more broadly than usual, reaching back in time some seven decades for a quick but affectionate sweep through American musical origins: three of Ruth Crawford’s piano preludes from 1928, an orchestration (why?) of Virgil Thomson’s Second Piano Sonata from 1930, Henry Cowell’s Toccanta from 1938 and Lou Harrison’s First Concerto for flute and percussion from a year later — delightful, small-scale but consequential music. Crawford’s remarkably strong, rugged, even abrasive legacy looms ever larger these days; her String Quartet is an acknowledged masterpiece, and these short piano pieces — nicely played by Lorna Eder — are not far behind. The kicky rhythms and folkish harmonies of Cowell’s bright chamber piece underscore our need for a major revival of his works. So, too, for Harrison; I loved most of all the starry, slowly unfolding melody midway in this early concerto, sent skyward by Dorothy Stone’s magic flute. After intermission came the extended nuisance of some of Michael Torke’s minimalist hootchy-kootch that I won’t bother to name, and Frame(s), Rand Steiger’s exhilarating new work for the EAR Unit’s percussion goddess Amy Knoles, knockout music including long improv passages for the players to feast upon royally, as, indeed, they did.

My memories of previous perform ances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony — Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall in 1945, Carlo Maria Giulini at the Music Center three-plus decades later — weren’t challenged by Zubin Mehta’s performance last week, especially since the Philharmonic seemed to be having a bad horn night on Thursday. But if any kind of music is Meh ta’s meat (a matter still to be argued), this sublime work surely is, and the performance — massive, spacious and eminently sensible — did him credit. Mehta had, quite rightly, reseated the orchestra as Mahler himself did, with the second violins downstage and the basses far back. The range of emotions had been carefully mapped: the heaven-storming climax of the first movement, the diabolical cachinnations midway, the long recession into silence at the end, when the music seems to resound from deep inside the hearer’s bloodstream. Those final moments at Thursday’s perform ance, alas, seemed timed to an outbreak of whooping cough in the hall.

On Friday there was Bach at Royce Hall, the first three (of six) cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio shepherded by the much-loved Helmuth Rilling, with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the USC Chamber Singers and an exceptional quar tet of soloists: music of joy and exaltation that sent me home to plan a whole ’nother article about Bach sometime soon. In the spectrum of current Bach performance practice, Rilling stands just about midway. He doesn’t mind a judicious vibrato in either vocal or instrumental tone, he knows the expressive value of a slow tempo now and then — as in the "Pastorale" that opens the second cantata, luscious and radiant — and his management of contrapuntal textures is marvelously strong and bright. Best of all — as anyone knows who has seen him in action every summer at the Oregon Bach Festival — he projects the sense of knowing how to make people want to perform. Among the soloists, the tenor Alan Bennett, who has also been here with Paul Hillier’s Theater of Voices, sang the Evangelist’s music with extraordinary clarity and beauty of phrase.

Full schedules keep me away from too many tempting-looking school perform ances, but nothing keeps me away from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. I looked in on Saturday night’s performance by the USC Opera Workshop, figuring on leaving at intermission if matters got hairy. Instead I stayed to the end, riveted and beguiled. On a make-do but adequate set, David Pfeiffer’s staging was full of the right kind of comedic touches; Timothy Lindberg drew from his student orchestra sounds both silken and silvery; somebody had imparted to the young cast a high regard for the beauty of Italian vowels and consonants. The singers, at least in the 562-seat Bing Theater, were mostly wonderful. I shouldn’t name names at this stage of their careers, but if a young singer named Sarah Hagstrom, whose Cherubino nearly stole the show, doesn’t turn up sometime soon in the operatic firmament, I’ll donate my crystal ball to the next garage sale.

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