Boston being the lively early-music town that it is, performances of 12th-century Benedictine abbess and mystic Hildegard von Bingen’s “Ordo Virtutum,” or “The Order of the Virtues,” are hardly few and far between. Cappella Clausura staged it in Boston in 2010; Collegium Musicum did it at Wellesley College in 2012 and Ensemble Musica Humana in Cambridge last year. Tuesday at Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory’s Department of Contemporary Improvisation weighed in with a “reinterpretation” of Hildegard’s sublime morality play-music drama.
It would have been interesting to hear the NEC students and guests jazz up “Ordo Virtutum,” or indeed give it any kind of contemporary slant. But Hildegard’s music was mostly just hinted at. The evening began with a “Twilight Yelli Chant” from Africa and went on to include a selection by bluegrass performer Bill Monroe, an “Invocation” based on Sufi remembrance ceremonies, a Korean exorcism dance, and music from the American Sacred Harp tradition.
The play’s simple plot — the Soul is on track to join the Virtues in Heaven before she runs into the Devil, who derails her with promises of worldly joy — also disappeared. Most of the selections riffed on generic religious sentiments; a few focused on Hildegard’s politics. (She wasn’t above admonishing popes.) At 130 minutes, the program was twice as long as a normal performance of “Ordo Virtutum.” There was no intermission, but about halfway through the stage remained empty for a good 15 minutes while stagehands repositioned innumerable chairs and mike stands. Hildegard herself managed with a small group of nuns and perhaps a harp and flute.
The Devil, at least, had a rewarding evening. He got a pretty good tune out of Jacob Hiser’s arrangement of Tom Waits’s “Heartattack and Vine” to represent his temptation of the Soul. (Hildegard didn’t let the Devil sing at all, only speak.) He scored again when Eckbert Sierra on saxophone and DoYeon Kim on gayageum presented his side of the story, though he probably wasn’t thrilled later when Kim did her exorcism dance. Cristi Catt and Caroline Kuhn offered arrangements of Hildegard pieces in which her voice was recognizable. But it was the CI Community Choir’s singing of the Sacred Harp hymn “From all that dwell below the skies” that, wild and soaring, channeled her spirit.
Hildegard would certainly have been pleased by the level of musicianship. And even if her presence was minimal, it was gratifying to see what her art has inspired eight centuries after her death.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.