On Nov. 19, The Lorelei Ensemble, led by Boston’s Beth Willer, presented the concert entitled “Imitation” at the Hibernian Hall in the Roxbury Arts Center. In addition to selections by Medieval and Renaissance Spanish composers, the ensemble performed works which juxtaposed this older vocal style with electronic musical and sound effect.
The ensemble numbered nine female singers, most of whom are regular performers in the Boston area, as well as a few “guests” from other cities; these younger members of Boston’s performance community have all achieved an impressive level of professional success, indicative of their strong, polished performance. In her capacity as conductor, Beth Willer (a graduate of Boston University) showed the directorial command and technical expertise necessary to effectively coordinate this challenging program. The group, founded by her in 2007, should certainly be counted among Boston’s up-and-coming vocal ensembles.
The program featured two works by local composers, Longy’s Jeremy Van Buskirk and Boston University’s Justin Casinghino. Both have emphasized the use of electronics in their compositions, examples of which were offered in the evening’s program. These pieces speak of Willer’s continuing effort to “enrich the body of repertoire” through collaboration with various composers and artists of all musical genres and interests.
The program opened with an anonymous setting of the Latin text “Portum in Ultimo” from the twelfth-century Codex Calixtinus; the text is a prayer for salvation on the day of final judgment. This work, featuring paired “discantus” polyphony above a vocal drone, provided the embarkation point for the symmetrical concert program, which ended with a contemporary setting of the same text (described below). Although the ensemble seemed a bit trepidatious at the opening, as a whole the work was a very effective introduction to the musical event as a whole.
The first of two sets of Spanish Renaissance polyphony included Christobal Morales’s “O Magnum Mysterium” and Francisco Guerrero’s “Sancta Et Immaculata”; the second set included Guerrero’s “Exaltata Est” and Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “O Regem Coeli”; both sets featured Latin poems which speak to the Christmas mysteries. In these works, the ensemble’s sound was strong, and the “points of arrival” (i.e. points at which the vocal parts leave their complex contrapuntal patterns for homophonic unity, principally at important cadential points) were sensitive and effective; at times, however, the thicker contrapuntal textures became a “wall of sound,” decreasing the subtlety of sonic texture and awareness of shape and importance of line. Additionally, the tactus (large beat) in these numbers, as the intricacies of the polyphonic tapestries, seemed at times to move by too quickly to be fully appreciated and enjoyed.
Closing the first half of the program was Justin Casinghino’s A Single Decade Rosary, a piece which the composer described as a depiction of “the mental states of prayer”; this effect was achieved through a mixture of live singing, electronically-distorted live singing, and pre-sampled musical sounds and speech. The work featured three soloists, alto Emily Marvosh and sopranos Ulrike Prager and Sonja Tengblad. Marvosh, flanked by her fellow soloists in the center of the ensemble’s symmetrical stage formation, stood out with her warm yet strong vocal timbre. Selected students from the Boston Arts Academy chorus (also directed by Beth Willer) joined the ensemble; these young singers offered steady support, carrying themselves in a manner one would expect of adult professionals.
The concert closed with Jeremy Van Buskirk’s Portum in Ultimo, a contemporary realization of the ancient Latin text described above. In addition to the live ensemble’s performance of Renaissance-style vocal textures, British DJ GMGN (Benjamin Adams) supplied sampled “feedback” of the vocalists’ sounds, later mixing these sounds with a full “club beat”; this electro-acoustic texture blossomed, and then closed upon itself, ending with a piercing vocal dyad. Willer spoke of the juxtaposition of traditional, religious music with contemporary, popular style not as an oppositional “crack in reality” but as repurposing and re-contextualization of the presumably disparate musical styles, serving a complementary musical goal.