In an already highly competitive musical scene in Boston, one wonders how yet another ensemble such as this one, made up of eight local professional female singers, can make it. Founded in 2007, Lorelei Ensemble is dedicated to the performance of new and early music. From here and now, a word-driven piece by Schankler and a sound-driven one by Yamada, both commissions for Lorelei, attempted to cover new ground. From then and there, Du Fay and Hildegard rang out, albeit sharply in Marsh Chapel.
From the early side, “PILGRIMAGE a project of Lorelei Ensemble, unplugged,” featured responsories from Hildegard von Bingen’s Scivias, which alternated with several of Guillaume Du Fay’s motets. All voices sang with exalted purpose in Du Fay’s Rite majorem Jacobum canamus (According to custom, let us sing to St. James the Greater). A trio delivered Flos florum (Flower of flowers). “…bring them a reward in the peace of the righteous” from the anonymous text might well describe the wondrous wafting weave the three fashioned, though at times, tuning and conviction would momentarily become concerns.
A quintet of voices in Vos flores rosarum (Blessed are you roses) of Hildegard made the song “fragrant with delight” yet, curiously, with tinges of aggressiveness. Peacefulness in the Hildegard performances was, generally, elusive. Higher notes and Marsh Chapel’s acoustic often put a sharp edge to the otherwise well-planned and well-prepared interpretations of the Lorelei Ensemble. The interval of the perfect fifth (do-sol), as sung by the full ensemble appearing in O tu suavissima (Oh you sweetest branch), resonated as much as for its pure sonic beauty as it did for its divine meaning “For the mystical mystery of God the virgin’s mind was illumined.” O nobilissima viriditas (O most noble greenness) of Hildegard von Bingen was also included in the opening set given over to early music.
After just over a half hour of music nearly a millennium old, music still viable, sustainable in today’s speak, we sat for nearly three-quarters of an hour waiting to hear the two new commissions. This, I was told, was due to a technical glitch, something to do with internet issues. Finally, the chapel gave way to darkness and the world premiere of a multimedia work with words of Amaranth , images from Christopher O’Leary and music by Isaac Schankler was underway. The silver screen being smallish, the images even more so, restricted our immersion and our absorption. I could not make out the words of Borsuk either through sight (too dark to read the text) or sound (a number of factors, including the chapel’s acoustic). Figuring out what this music meant was another matter. At times, welcome lushness surfaced. But since the composition took a narrative bent, overall sameness in rhythm prevailed. Shankler’s “The Familiar Spirit” (2013) did not appear to elicit much expression of appreciation or understanding from the small, courteous turnout.
“A Field Guide to Pilgrim Tracks” (2013) by Reiko Yamada that set images by Sibylle Irma to vocal and electronic sounds prompted a similar reaction. More abstraction, both on the screen and from the vocal ensemble, unfolded in a kind of timelessness. Spooky utterances broke any spell that might have been induced. The ongoing “hum-like” texture of the work was pleasant enough, yet remained a mystery to me. The séance began with candles lighted at an altar table then extinguished in a ritual-like manner after the piece ended. As with the preceding commission this, too, caused me to wonder about purpose. Obvious effort and dedication from Lorelei’s singer’s under the direction of founder and artistic director Beth Willer certainly should bring a great deal of satisfaction to both of the young composers.