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[whitespace] Into the Abbess

Singer Norma Gentile brings Dark Ages chant to light with a program dedicated to the works of Hildegard von Bingen

By Marianne Messina

IN PREPARATION for her final apprenticeship in a hands-off healing technique, vocalist Norma Gentile needed some chants. So she went to the library at the University of Michigan, where she'd earned her degree in Early Music.

"There was this book," Gentile remembers. "It was bound in salmon, instead of black and brown like all the other chant books sitting around it, and it just caught my eye--I was aghast that it was a book of music by a woman in the 12th century."

This happy accident began an ongoing relationship between the rich-toned, 20th-century soprano and the 900-year-old music of Hildegard von Bingen, an abbess and seer so well-respected in her day that everyone from popes to kings consulted her on spiritual matters.

Raised from age 8 in a strictly cloistered environment as an anchoress (religious recluse), von Bingen acquired her formal understanding of music by hearing Mass through a window--an anchoress's confinement did not allow her to physically attend services. Eventually, von Bingen came to "hear" music of her own, which she sang for her lifelong assistant, Volmar, to transcribe.

Though von Bingen wrote in the tradition known as Gregorian chant, her chants are a far cry from the familiar crooning of monks in a Xerox commercial. Von Bingen's chants are lively with unexpected musical leaps, and often demand an unheard-of two-and-a-half-octave range. Even the Latin in von Bingen's verses is different, and Gentile noticed its lush quality right away.

"I loved it because it was talking about nature and greenness," says Gentile, "and there was a lot of feminine in it, feminine endings on the Latin words."

The liaison between von Bingen and Gentile has produced two CDs and an original approach to performing chant that, according to Gentile, is still evolving. "The word concert originally meant to draw together," she says. "So a concert is not a presentation. Hildegard's music wasn't written to be a presentation; it was meant for a group of people to come together and sing together."

With this in mind, Gentile leads audiences to von Bingen's brilliant musicality through participation. "While I can't teach everyone in the audience all of the chants, I can certainly invite them to sing a tonic note, a dominant note, or octaves," Gentile says.

Audience members report various after-effects, from cleared lungs to cleared heads. "I think," says Gentile, "it's because when you sing like that--you're just singing gently--the vibration of the sound does undo little tensionings all the way through the body."

Achieving just the right acoustics is something Gentile gives a lot of thought to. "High ceilings, hard surfaces, a real abundance of echo and an acoustic that moves in a very definite way, so that you can sing one note, stop and sing another note and that first note is still resonating--that's what I look for in an acoustic. That way the music comes alive."

Months before a performance, Gentile begins to tailor it to the resonance of the performance space and the types of voices that may attend. She insists that as long as there are good acoustics, even the shy-of-voice can appreciate the experience. "Everyone's voice blends together. People experience the sound as coming from all around them because it echoes off the walls."

And after singing in churches around the world, including some thousand-year-old cathedrals in northern Spain, Gentile considers the Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph in San Jose "one of the finest acoustics for early music that I know of, particularly for chant." And the Basilica's "big, echoey sound" is part of the magic. "You've really got a major jewel there," she says.

Norma Gentile leads the medieval chants of Hildegard von Bingen, Saturday, March 24, at 8pm at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph, 80 S. Market St, San Jose. Tickets are $15 general/$10 seniors. (408.283.8100)

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From the March 22-28, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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