In times of turbulence and change, we seem to become more conscious of the past, sometimes recognizing its lessons just a moment too late. But one of art’s most outstanding qualities is that it can be resurrected and given new life through the interpretive lens or simply through the act of revealing its existence. Lorelei Ensemble’s all-women octet, directed by Beth Willer, brought a revealing and interpretive program to Hamilton (Friday night) and Brookline (last night), entitled “A Mass: Revolution, Resistance, and Progress.”
Brookline’s United Parish, which hosted last night’s concert, was indeed the perfect venue for a concert that imbued the Mass structure with a musical and spiritual ecumenicism. The church is affiliated with three religious denominations: American Baptist, United Methodist, and United Church of Christ; and in its architecture seems to exist peacefully as a mélange of traditions. Musically, Sungji Hong’s 2002 Missa Lumen de Lumine provided the structural anchor for a program that was as beautifully constructed as it was performed. Each movement of the Missa except the Gloria was followed by a new premiere written in response to the Mass text. Echoes from the past rang throughout the concert in three Byzantine chants by the ninth-century composer Kassia, which worked extremely effectively as Introit, a makeshift Alleluia, and a Communion/Dismissal.
But Lorelei does more than offer inventive programs. There were no weak links in this ensemble. The balance and blend were at times utterly mesmerizing, and the soloists were excellent across the board. What was pleasantly surprising was the variety of vocal timbres within the group and how easily the ensemble seemed to reconcile this when singing together. This exposed the variegated texture of many of the works, especially the Hong Missa. If there was any apparent disjuncture, it was only in some of the stylistic and interpretive choices of the soloists, particularly in the opening work by Kassia, I en polles amarties. Clare McNamara opened the concert with a soulful and authentic cantorial style, and her expressivity was echoed by most of the other soloists. The real challenge of singing chant is navigating the balance of freedom and deliberation. The timbral blend of the ensemble was breathtaking, but there was a slight sense of strain to the more homorhythmic sections.
With the exception of the final Agnus Dei, all the movements of Hong’s Missa were sung by a trio of voices, showcasing the strong talent that makes up Lorelei Ensemble. In the Kyrie, Emily Marvosh’s solid and assertive phrasing connected the piece to the preceding work by Kassia and was a engaging partner with Sonja Tengblad’s angelic dulcet melismas. Joined by Emily Culler, this trio also sang the Sanctus of the Missa, where Culler and Marvosh artfully matched their vocal character across an extremely wide range. The Gloria, sung by Margot Rood, Clare McNamara, and Thea Lobo, demonstrated how well these women listen to each other. Calling upon the highest and lowest of vocal register, the Gloria tested the limits of all three singers, who rose to the occasion. Rood’s brilliant transparency rang through the church, counterbalanced by a rich, but never heavy tone from McNamara and Lobo. The quieter moments of the Gloria were particularly impressive in terms of vocal blend. Hong’s setting of the Credo is conservatively poignant, and the composer in general showed sensitivity to the liturgical and traditional functions of the Mass texts, even in a concert setting. The movement highlighted the vocal agility of contralto Stephanie Kacoyanis in a trio with Rood and Tengblad. The “Amen” of the Credo was one of the most moving and musically stirring moments of the entire evening. The bell-like invocation of the Sanctus called upon centuries of polyphonic tradition, and Culler, Tengblad, and Marvosh seemed to have an artistic awareness of past and present in their sensitive performance. Marvosh, whose stage presence was a joy to behold, offered a tone that had the velvety soulfulness of a cello, or at times a mournful duduk and lent a refreshing pious solemnity to this more joyful of Mass texts. The final Agnus Dei, which featured the entire ensemble including Beth Willer, was absolutely stunning. The unison portions were arresting in their clarity of tone, and the textures of the polyphonic sections were almost visible in their intricacy and exactitude.
Each of the commissioned world premieres was beautifully matched to their corresponding mass movement. Anita Kupriss’s Infinite Mercy troped the idea of “mercy” in the Kyrie, using multilingual textual expressions of the word. The ensemble effortlessly brought forth the intricate counterpoint that was both energized and ethereal. Lorelei’s collective diction was superb and actually contributed to the texture, particularly at the end of the piece where the text evokes a “world infused with gladness, honor, and joy.” Beth Willer’s conducting was masterful yet understated, allowing the skill of her ensemble to take the reins.
Erin Huelskamp’s Love Credo continued the fervor of the preceding religious Credo in its sincere devotion to love. Upon glancing at the words, adapted from an original text by Shannon Rosa, I admit I was skeptical when I read: “…a whole bunch of other cool dudes like Muhammad, Buddha, Martin Luther, George Fox…”. Huelskamp’s score, however, managed to rise above my (perhaps, unfair) associations with that parlance, and skillfully interwove jazz harmonies into an almost micropolyphonic tapestry.
It was Joshua Bornfield’s Farewell (Long Time Travelin’) that was revelatory in its ability to navigate stylistic diversity. According to the composer, it is more of a response to the Catholic Sanctus than an homage: “within this Catholic structure lives an unruly Baptist music, one with great power over the source material as it historically comes from the same place.” While the composer offers this as a “protest,” I felt the work offered a more peaceful reconciliation in its “Sacred Harp” energy meshed with a nostalgic spirituality. The Lorelei Ensemble seemed to relish this work, capitalizing upon opportunities for stylistic variety. Clare McNamara and Margot Rood’s singing, in particular, recalled the roots of gospel without artifice, reminding us that spirituality is infinite in its musical expression. Bornfield’s excellent work extends the American choral tradition of composers like Gail Kubik and Moses Hogan and seems a clarion call for reinvigorating this tradition.
Carson Cooman, who offered little in the way of program notes, wisely decided to let the text by Elizabeth Kirschner speak for itself in his Golden Callings. Cooman’s rich sonorities supported Kirschner’s exquisite text, and the ensemble delivered both a passionate and sensitive performance. In the hands of a less skillful composer, the poem might have elicited trite word painting and compositional rhetoric. But Cooman clearly kept the spirit of the Agnus Dei in mind, and his setting of lines like “The compost in my wounds/ composes me as does the rich/ roux of sorrow that burrows into my soul’s/ creamy marrow” were moving and reflective. Not content to rely upon pretty harmonies, however, Cooman’s rhythmic and vivacious counterpoint in “Within the spun strands, the promise/ of flurrying wings and soon, soon,/my wounds, your wounds and our very/ brokenness will be what awakens us greatly” was spectacular — and beautifully executed by the ensemble.
Part of the mission of Lorelei Ensemble is to expand repertoire for women’s voices, and it is fulfilling this objective with creativity and the highest level of artistry. While the eight-voice women’s ensemble, founded in 2007, is a fairly new member of Boston’s rich choral scene, it is fast becoming a source of some of the most innovative and inventive programming. And in this day of recycled standards and deified “composers of the moment,” attention to the infinite palette of possibilities is laudable. The group will be performing as part of the Monadnock Music Festival in August.
Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculty of Longy School of Music and Boston Conservatory.