The Medieval Women’s Choir Fills St. James Cathedral With Ethereal Song

As a Seattle native, I feel a little sheepish admitting that I paid my first visit to St. James Cathedral only last Saturday. One of the city’s grandest landmarks, the cathedral’s twin spires have adorned First Hill since 1907. In 2002, St. James famously hosted Conan O’Brien’s wedding to Seattle native Liza Powel.

Celebrity marriages aside, the cathedral is an important space for Seattle’s choral and early music communities, and for a good reason — the building’s echoing acoustics bring the sound of vocal music to life. St. James did not disappoint during my first visit. From my seat on a pew in the cathedral’s grand nave, the voices of the Medieval Women’s Choir transported me back to the ancient churches of Renaissance Europe, where choirs of nuns sung Gregorian chant in the candlelight.

Margriet Tindemans (Photo: William Stickney)

Margriet Tindemans (Photo: William Stickney)

Nearly fifty members strong, the Medieval Women’s Choir was created in 1990 by Margriet Tindemans. A local powerhouse for the early music community, Tindemans does it all. In addition to her position as artistic director of the Medieval Women’s Choir, she plays the vielle (an ancient cousin of the violin), composes, and researches the musical traditions of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The choir performs three times a year, bringing the timeless simplicity and beauty of the vocal music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to Seattle’s grand old churches and cathedrals. To complete the package, they’re accompanied by musicians playing on period instruments.

This season, the choir explored the life and work of St. Hildegard of Bingen with three concerts devoted to the medieval mystic. Last Saturday’s performance brought together a collection of songs and antiphons — responsive Gregorian chants — that Hildegard may have heard during her lifetime.

Born in 1098, Hildegard stands out not only as a fascinating historical figure, but as a powerful, educated woman during an age where men ruled the roost. A “Renaissance woman” in both the literal and figurative sense, she established herself as an abbess, theologian, poet, composer, and healer. However, it was her religious visions that brought Hildegard fame, gaining her such a following that she struck out on her own, moving to Bingen in Germany to start her own abbey at Rubertsberg.

Many songs were written to commemorate the completion of Hildegard’s abbey. One of these was O Jerusalem, an extended chant sequence that was the centerpiece of Saturday’s program. Alternating between the full choir and solo passages sung by soprano Marian Seibert, the song praises the beauty of the holy city of Jerusalem, comparing its splendor to the abbey at Rupertsberg. Seibert dug into the rich imagery of the Latin text, her buoyant voice outlining the dips and soars in the melodic line.

St. Hildegard receiving a vision (Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias / Wikipedia)

St. Hildegard receiving a vision (Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias / Wikipedia)

It’s a delight to watch Tindemans direct her ensemble. Conducting with a smile on her face, her gestures and expressions communicate a passion for the music the choir performs. The expanse of St. James is ideal for this ethereal chorus of female voices. The antiphons O Virtus Sapientie (“O Virtue of Wisdom”) and Laus Trinitati (“Praise to the Trinity”) showcased the choir’s soothing sound, with winding melodies that floated up to the ceiling. Tindemans savored brief pauses between phrases, allowing the choir’s words to echo throughout the space, hanging in the air.

Instrumental interludes provided musical contrast between sets of antiphons. Joined by Bill McJohn on the hand-held medieval harp and Peggy Monroe on the bells and rota (a spinning wheel with bells affixed around the rim), Tindemans left the podium and picked up her vielle. Together, the trio created an atmospheric mood that complemented the cathedral surroundings. Vielle and harp mimicked the rising and falling melodic lines of the chants while shimmering tones from Monroe’s bells accented pivotal moments.

The ensemble moved around the cathedral throughout the concert, giving a dynamic feel to the event. Though most works were performed around St. James’s central dais, the choir circled the platform, singing different sections of the program from various locations around the stage. During the antiphon Alleluiah, O Virga Mediatrix, soprano Seibert, harpist McJohn, and a small group of singers clustered in the cathedral’s central aisle amidst the audience. The massive space suddenly took on the feel of a small, intimate chamber as the tiny circle of singers wound their way through a melodious ode praising the Virgin Mary.

Though Saturday’s concert was the final performance of the season for the Medieval Women’s Choir, Tindemans and the ensemble have an exciting lineup in store for the 2013-14 season. March 2014 brings world premieres by Tindemans and noted early music scholar Shira Kammen. In May 2014, the choir performs a tribute to colorful Middle Ages figure Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughters, a high-powered family of leading ladies from the 12th and 13th centuries.

Originally posted in The SunBreak on May 14, 2013.

Comments are closed.