Friday night at Marsh Chapel marked the opening of Lorelei’s 8th season, and the second time I have heard this remarkable ensemble live. (I recommend their new CD, “Live, Know, Love). Founded in 2007 by music director (and singer) Beth Willer, Lorelei is cutting-edge daring and dazzling. Dedicated to enriching the repertoire for women’s voices, Lorelei has commissioned many new- and very exciting- works and has “repurposed” works from the Medieval through the Baroque periods for women’s voices. Consisting of eight superb singers from the Boston area, Lorelei also seeks out music by women composers as well as music from the last 20 years.
Lorelei’s vocal octet does not aim for a homogeneity of sound, which affords a listener a chance to savor each of its beautiful voices, which are invariably given solos throughout concerts. In her program notes, Beth Willer describes American music as having a “certain optimism… It is inherently a struggle, most often dressed in sentiments of revolution, defiance, or victory. It is unapologetic and open, clear and earthbound… American musicians have developed an acute awareness of what has gone before but always with an eye on what has not yet been attempted.” Add to this Lorelei’s vision of putting on music and performances “that are culturally relevant… bold experimental, and ground-breaking” and you have some idea of the intelligence and creativity that go into its programming.
This unusual program, “Reconstructed: The New Americana,” dedicated to American music, old and new, opened with Africa (text by Isaac Watts) by the famously eccentric Boston composer William Billings (1776-1800). Later, an interlude by Billings showed how he experimented with the kind of dissonance that foreshadowed Charles Ives. Interludes by other three contemporary composers (all born since 1954), Willer explains, serve as links between the four world premieres, all commissioned by Lorelei Ensemble. All four of the composers were in the audience.
The first of these was North Woods by Scott Ordway (b. 1984) whose text was adapted from the Roman historian Tacitus. Ordway, who teaches at Curtis, explains that Tacitus was wholly ignorant about geography and how the planet worked in terms of shape and regard to the sun. Instead he had “an almost mystical reverence that still feels intuitively correct.” (One is reminded of pianist Glenn Gould’s fascination with the idea of North). Like the three other commissions, North Woods is haunting and really lovely, with a whimsical piccolo part played from the balcony by Ashley Addinton. Maiben: Vermont (text by Emily Dickinson) by Dana Maiben (b. 1954), like many other of the evening’s works, was slow, hypnotic and celestial sounding. All of the women’s voices sounded fabulous in Marsh Chapel. Their intonation was dead-on and their enunciation pellucid. This is an ensemble that really listens to each other, and the lower voices struck me as particularly gorgeous. The sopranos are Sonja Tengblad (whom I enjoyed recently in a Blue Heron concert), Emily Culler and Sarah Moyer; the altos Clare McNamara, Christina English, Stephanie Kacoyanis, Emily Marvosh. McNamara and Marvosh are two serious reasons for attending Lorelei’s concerts.
Nokomis’ Fall, commissioned by the Lorelei Ensemble from Mary Montgomery Koppel (b. 1982), featured Ashley Addinton on bass flute (Koppel’s music also was sung earlier this year). Here, she takes Longfellow’s epic poem (from The Song of Hiawatha) into our age, “dressing its legend in quartal harmonies and whole-tone scales that connect the earthly to the celestial.” The program notes remind us that Longfellow’s encounters with Native Americans on Boston Common helped shape this work. Nakomis, the grandmother of Hiawatha’s grandmother, raises him after his mother dies in childbirth. She herself had had a mythical birth, falling from the moon. The piece aims to juxtapose the earthly with the celestial, reflecting Nokomis’s story straddling the two realms. It was quite beautiful, midway turning fast and spirited, dissonant but beautiful.
Joshua Bornfield’s (b. 1980) impressive Reconstruction is in five-parts; a Lorelei-commission, impressive solo singing spread throughout the program quite effectively. Based on five famous tunes from mid-19th century America, all have explicitly sacred roots, while often composed for specific religious and political purposes. Its five movements are “I. Crown (based on “Mercy Seat”), II: Wrath (“Battle Hymn of the Republic and John Brown’s Body”), III. Brother Sister Mourner (“Amazing Grace”), IV. Reconstruction (“Long Time Travlin’ “) and V. Salvation (“Song of the Lamb”). Emily Marvosh was the memorable soloist in the “Amazing Grace” movement, the four lower voices got a chance to show off their gorgeous voices in “Long time travlin’).
Saro, yet another commission and world premiere, by Joshua Shank (b. 1980) featured Shaw Pong Liu on violin. A seasoned choral composer, Shank has had 100,000 copies of his music sold worldwide. His Magnificat for the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo appeared on another Lorelei concert earlier this year. This hypnotic piece featured a lovely solo sung by Margot Rood.
Throughout this well-attended concert, the audience was rapt. What continues to impress me about this indispensable group is the intelligence behind Beth Willers exceptionally interesting programming, and the teamwork of Lorelei’s gifted singers, who make all sorts of music come to life with such haunting beauty.