There is something moving about the subversion that’s inherent in the Canticle of Mary–the Magnificat. The Gospel of Luke reports that the words are spoken by the pregnant Virgin Mary upon being praised for her faith during the trying time. Mary responds with Magnificat a text replete with hope for the persecuted, confident in the downfall of the mighty, and the elevation of the poor. The subversive nature of the text is not unfamiliar, and—like much of the Bible—has played a major role in shaping history; most recently, of course in the 1980’s when the text was considered a call to rebellion and public recitations were banned by the Guatemalan government.
The Lorelei Ensemble placed the Magnificat at the heart of its concert on Friday evening in Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. In a program entitled “Lineage,” the nine-member all-female ensemble performed three settings of the text: the plainchant beginnings followed by two contemporary settings by Paul Chihara and Joshua Shank. Complementing these were ecclesiastical works by Elizabethan composers John Sheppard, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis as well as colonial American music by William Billings, and music by present day composers Mary Montgomery Koppel and Karin Höghielm.
The concert took me by surprise in many ways—most importantly by the remarkable blend that the members are able to achieve. The program opened with the Tone VIII setting of the Magnificat—a spare unison that served to warm the audience’s ears to the vast space of Marsh Chapel. Verses alternated between tutti and soli passages, a method that showed the remarkable variety of color in the individual voices of the ensemble while demonstrating the remarkable ability of the group to blend. In the Elizabethan works of the evening, particularly in the works by Tallis and Byrd, their unified blend served the ensemble well. I was curious how William Billings—famous for his robust bass lines for male voices—would sound in an all-female ensemble. Therein the varied timbres of the ensemble provided the ample color demanded by the early-American composer.
The modern works also fared well. Mary Koppel’s drishti, a setting of the Sanskrit from the Upanishads, and Karin Höghielm’s Motet, setting the Beatitudes to music, were performed in collaboration with Carson Cooman on organ, and fared well on Friday night. Yet it seemed that the Magnificat text lay at the heart of Friday’s performance. Paul Chihara’s Magnificat is a startlingly minimal read of the text, employing just enough harmony to distinguish it from the chant. This deceptively simple façade hides labyrinthine harmonic lines; in the hands of Lorelei, the work exuded a natural elegance. In contrast to Chihara, Joshua Shank’s Magnificat for the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo emphasizes the political nature of the Magnificat. The four-movement “cantata” version of the work, which is conceived of in twelve movements (following the structure of Bach’s setting of the text), was accompanied by pianist Joe Turbessi. Instead of setting the text of the Magnificat directly, Shank takes his texts from various interviews, poetry and speeches written in response to or by victims of Argentina’s period of state terrorism lasting approximately from 1976 to 1983. The work is difficult to listen to for the right reasons—the incredibly difficult texts set to music that exposes the brutal reality behind the words. The ensemble fared remarkably well with this difficult work, dramatizing Shank’s settings with complete commitment and understanding. Of particular note was Emily Marvosh’s raw performance of His Name; in traumatized, broken lines a mother recounts how she could not speak the name of her son after he was abducted. Marvosh presented a smooth, yet surprisingly warm tone that remained poignantly expressive while presenting an impassive account of the tragic text. Shank’s fascinating and moving work will be revealed over the next seasons to Lorelei audiences.
Friday’s programming was an intense meditation on the Marian text in its both its religious and political aspects. As such, the evening proved not for the faint of heart, challenging audience members to reconcile these two very difficult meanings. That vast swathes of the concert passed without applause stood as testament to the audience’s rapt attention to the meaning of the music and the effectiveness of the ensemble’s program.