The elegance, power, grace, and beauty of the human voice were vividly on display last Friday evening, thanks to the Lorelei Ensemble. Under the musical direction of Beth Willer, who founded the group in 2007, the Lorelei Ensemble. “Fallen” consisted primarily of 20th and 21st-century vocal music, and featured world premieres of commissioned works by Daniel Schlosberg, Sungji Hong, and Travis Alford.
Willer’s notes told us that the selected works sought to explore the idea of paradise—not in imagined utopias—but the sort of transcendence actually realized by our experience. The texts from these pieces, in Russian, Latin, English, and German, treated humanity’s struggle for the Eternal, and touched upon weighty subjects such as God, salvation, good, and evil. Without knowledge of the intended theme or translations of the texts, any audience member would undoubtedly have experienced something of the divine during the performance; the resonance in the church combined with the ensemble’s exceptionally pure voices made for a most transcendent sonic artifice.
The concert began with Sofia Gubaidulin’s Aus den Visionen von Hildegard von Bingen for solo alto. Emily Marvosh rendered the music with close attention and poise, exercising exceptional taste and restraint in her phrasing and dynamic interpretation. The piece itself was almost an etude of large jumps; it featured a chromatic ascending line rising away from, but repeatedly pulled back to, a pedal tone low in her register. The upper line rose and rose, to an astonishing, brilliant high register. Her virtuosic execution of these jumps was as effortless as it was graceful.
Yuri Yukechev’s My Heart is Ready was the program’s center. The eight-movement a cappella cantata, presented in three portions, began simply and subdued but rose to astonishing complexity by the end. The first movement had two singers doubled at the octave for most of the piece, growing to four (two parts) in the next movement, and so on, until the conductor, Willer, and all-eight took the stage. Yukechev’s masterful writing evinced a reverence and affinity for the history of contrapuntal sacred vocal music, though its successes largely stemmed from its utilization of the harmonic outlook and compositional techniques of the last half of the 20th century. As the forces grew in size, the choir maintained the same unity of sound as they had in small groups: always tightly synchronized and blended perfectly. The Lorelei irthe listener through the complexity with the well-matched voices, seamlessly navigating Yukechev’s diverse polyphony, as members were paired, offset, and mixed in a variety of ways, while maintaining an impeccable blend through the duration.
Next came the premier of Daniel Scholsberg’s So We Must Make the Journey Around the World, based on a segment of text from a philosophical essay by Heinrich von Kleist. It began with a unison exposition of the text and an oscillating, almost diatonic, tone row. The repetition and contour of the melody highlighted the text. As the piece developed, the composer staggered the entrances of earlier material, creating an effect akin to phase shifting. The voices matched so well that it was nearly impossible to tell which singer was moving without looking, which made this effect all the more astonishing. Out of the imitation and addition of more voices grew some tightly clustered harmonic material—harmonies that seemed to shift as soon as they became stable enough for one’s ears to grasp. The composition felt whole and complete, coming full circle by ending with a unison restatement of the music from the beginning.
The premier of Sungji Hong’s Ficus enim non florebit came next. Based on the final verses of the prophet, Habakkuk, it began on a sustained unison note, out of which grew a gently descending line—oblique motion that continued throughout. Then elements of chromatic falling came in, contrasting to the open harmonies heard up to this point. This chromaticism was expounded upon and took the piece to radically different harmonic territory. The middle section included some devastating, dissonant homophonic chords—the most visceral experience of the evening. However, the harmonic ‘straight-forwardness’ of other sections created almost too dramatic of a contrast. Despite certain extraordinary moments, I didn’t have a continuous experience as a listener—a satisfaction in form definitely realized by Schlosberg’s work.
The second half of the program began with guest instrumentalists playing more Gubaidulina, her Trio for Three Trumpets. Similar to the Schlosberg, it featured tightly spaced, close imitation, which capitalized on the church’s resonance. The piece moved through timbrally diverse and harmonically contrasting sections–one of them featuring harsher rhythmic “blats” of the instrument on drones notes, which sounded almost like a shofar. The music was cluttered and chaotic (a tasteful foreshadowing and preparation for Alford’s piece). The music resolved to some more mournful chordal moments, but it pulled back to the dissonance and chaos it lived in for most of the work.
Travis Alford’s O Fragile Human Speak was an extensive work for the Lorelei Ensemble and trumpet trio. Based on the spiritual visions of Christian mystic, Hildegard von Bingen it was the only selection that added. Progressive and challenging, it touched on many aesthetics and affects, feeling more like ‘New Music’ than the other items on the program. He spent no time dwelling on pretty harmonies or unisons as the other composers had: he went straight for harsh dissonances and quickly conjured a busy texture. In five continuous movements, this piece was motivically coherent and affectively diverse. During the beginning, single voices shone out of the texture, singing rising bits of whole tone scale.
One of the most harrowing moments took place about midway through, when the trumpets and the choir played at a high, high volume. Whereas the other pieces had saturated the hall, this overloaded the space, creating a frenzy that bordered on distortion. It felt overwhelming and other-worldly—or more aptly, given the text, underworldly.
After this episode, the composer gave us repose and beautiful harmonies, though he went back to some of the more nail-on-the-chalkboard harmonies sooner than I would have liked.
Alford tastefully interwove the vocalists and trumpets, with sustained notes subtly handed off between them. Though some of the musical content strayed a bit too far into the avant-garde for my tastes, O Fragile Human Speak sounded like the work of a mature composer in command of his tools and aware of his own style.
The final piece was a deep breath of calm and peace: Salvation is Created, a hymn by Pavel Chesnokov. The easier, more traditional harmonies subtly handed the spotlight to the group’s warm, angelic, sounding in the dry but clear space.
Overall, Lorelei gave us a dynamic concatenation of modern techniques. Without noticeable effort, the singers served as modest, virtuosic mediators between the composers and the audience. A mindful ear would notice warm overtones in most of their unisons. Willer’s smooth conducting matched the drama of the music; she never moved gaudily or exhibited more excitement than needed. Her movements were a captivating visual interest that helped portray the musical narratives.