in: Reviews

May 24, 2015

Eight Women Give Us Shelter

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Lorelei Ensemble enchantingly pondered all that shelter entails. The remarkable eight-voice women’s vocal group offered two world premieres among eight pieces from 2 sets of medieval manuscripts, Codex Calixtinus (1160-1173) and Codex Las Huelgas (c. 1300) which happens to mean place of shelter.

Like other Lorelei concerts I’ve enjoyed, this one was unusually well-conceived, exquisitely sung, and thoroughly original. Committed (I quote from its mission statement) “to a fresh and culturally relevant repertoire, Lorelei re-imagines and cultivates bold compositional voices in performances that transform audience perspectives and expectations… through passionate, emerging artistry and creative collaboration.” Mission accomplished.

Friday’s concert at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, one of the most memorable passing season, featured composer/violinist Shaw Pong’s, Peace is a Woman in a House, a multi-media piece in three-movements based on the traditional Chinese symbol for peace: a women and a roof above her head. It was the crux of the program,” Beth Willer, Lorelei’s founder and artistic director said. “Once the concept of that piece was underway, I began to build the program around this idea of shelter: what it means to take shelter, what it means to shelter yourself from the world. That led me to these two codexes, and also played a role in Carson’s (who composed the last piece, The Dawning Light) text choices. All of the works deal in some way with ideas of protection, refuge, and sanctuary, using strikingly different frameworks, texts, and musical languages.”

In my many years of concert-going I do not recall anything quite like this.” Liu writes that she wanted “to include more voices than are normally heard in art music.” For starters, in 2014 she created a public art project, “Water Graffiti for Peace,” to get passersby to reflect on the Chinese radicals for peace (a woman under a roof). 

 ”I collaborated with Chinese calligrapher Mike Mei and a team of five teen artist-researchers to create several public water calligraphy sessions in Boston’s Chinatown and the Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park. Using giant, 3-foot long brushes dipped in water, with the pavement a writing surface, over 500 individuals engaged. In addition to these participants, the members of the Lorelei Ensemble were enthusiastic collaborators who also participated in creating their own characters for peace. They boldly explored musical improvisation, movement, and the Mandarin spoken language… Their energy, ideas, and artistry were essential to the creation of this piece.”

PWH is an exploration of community ideas about peace and the Chinese character for it, as well as an examination of Chinese calligraphy itself. The composer writes, “The movement plays with connections between sound and the physical strokes of Chinese calligraphy, strokes which each carry their particular duration, stress, and rhythm.”

The first movement, “Two Hands Together,” features about a dozen and a half short “texts” from the Water Graffiti Project. While one or more members of Lorelei speak the texts, they also seemed to be sketching the radicals in the air with their hands held high while Mike Mei did beautiful calligraphy on three large canvases on the stage. The effect was utterly transfixing.

“Too Small” is apparently autobiographical, recalling her mother’s screams followed by her own screams, “Daddy, please stop!” She is too small to do anything else. The Lorelei singers sat with their hands on their mouths humming while Margot Rood (who sang was the soloist with the Brookline Symphony last month in Mahler 4th Symphony and was extremely fine there as well) sang the words with a scary emphasis on “Screams” which the second and third time are joined by the other singers, sounding like sirens. They are eerily joined by the composer in a scary, jagged violin solo from the balcony. It took one’s break away.

“Interbeing” is based on the Buddhist concept “You are not separate from me” and ponders—in eight languages—the idea that we all suffer if some of us are suffering. The eight singers walked down the aisles and in front of the chapel, each saying lines at different intervals, while making noises like hisses and pops and crickets in the grass. I hope this work gets lots of performances. The audience remarked how they felt transported (a word several used) and deeply moved by this unusually haunting composition and the brilliant performance it received.

As if to mock the diva custom of changing costumes at intermission, the Loreleis returned after their shattering performance in all new concert wear, this time an interesting array of black and white dresses (only one wore an alluring pants suit). The major work on the second half came in the premiere of Carson Coonan’s (b. 1982) seven-movement The Dawning Light. Anonymously translated from Inuit-Yupik, it has wordless (vocalise) outer movements (“Moon Music” and “Sun Music” which frame six poems. According to Willer, “The poems “approach the idea of home and shelter but from the perspective of an indigenous people, and therefore their roof is a sky rather than a construct.” She expounded on this idea in the program book:

Lorelei (file photo)

Lorelei (file photo)

The poems … possess a certain clarity and fearlessness, reflected in the rhythmic buoyancy and open harmonies of Cooman’s setting. The ensemble speaks of an individual ‘I,’ both empowered and humbled by nature, grounded in awe of the ‘One great thing’- the light that can be seen both ‘in huts and on journeys’ daily. It is in this cyclical journey from dusk to dawn that we must continuously and jointly seek moments of peace, and perhaps enjoy that freedom, however temporarily.

Cooman wrote beautifully for the Lorelei voices, and I would deem the performance a moving success. The fifth movement, “Song of Joy” was sung spectacularly by Sonja Tengblad, as was “The Great Sighing” (3rd movement) by Emily Marvosh. This will certainly rank as one of Lorelei’s most pleasant, well-crafted commissions.

Willer, who often sings alto, led member-sopranos Emily Culler, Margot Rood, Sonja Tengblad and Sarah Moyer; -mezzo-sopranos Christina English and Clare McNamara; and -altos Stephanie Kacoyanis and Emily Marvosh, Particularly distinguished contributions on this concert also came from Clare McNamara and Stephanie Kacoyanis.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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