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Lorelei’s Medieval and Modern Bird Songs


My first opportunity to hear Lorelei Ensemble at full length came on Saturday at the 808 Gallery on Huntington Avenue with “Briddes World,” a singularly fascinating pairing of old English songs from the 13th century and 21st century settings of many of the same poems by the late William Thomas McKinley. In addition we heard four selections from Canticles of the Holy Wind by John Luther Adams, winner of last year’s Pulitzer prize.

From previous experiences I already knew that the individual singers boasted expressive and beautiful voices; whether they sang in small groupings, or as a whole, they established a perfect blend and extraordinary balance. Lorelei consists of its founder-conductor Beth Willer, who also sings alto, and eight other members, all busy freelance singers both locally and farther afield:   sopranos Sarah Brailey, Corrine Byrne, Margot Rood, and Sonja Tengblad; mezzo-sopranos Christina English, and Clare McNamara; and altos Emily Marvosch and Kirsten Sollek. On this evening they were joined by violinist Andrew Kohji Taylor.

The program was cleverly laid out for maximum variety and contrast, and smoothly “choreographed” to maintain the flow from beginning to end of each half. (The audience was asked not to applaud within each half.) For the old English songs drawn from various 13th-century manuscripts, the group stood in a circle surrounded by the audience and facing inward, where they could sing facing one another, either as a full octet conducted by Willer or in varying smaller assortments.

Seven selections came from 10 Medieval Songs, a late composition of William Thomas McKinley, who sent them to Willer shortly before his death last February. He chose many of the same texts from the 13th-century manuscripts, but set them in his own dense, rhythmically complex, harmonically intricate language, often suggesting a quite different mood and expressive emphasis than the monophonic songs themselves

Since many of the texts chosen made reference to birds in some way, it was Beth Willler’s inspired choice to intersperse throughout, four movements from Canticles of the Holy Word, an early seminal work by John Luther Adams from the late 1970s. The full work is long and elaborate, including multiple choruses, but four movements require just eight treble singers (who also sometimes play triangles and other percussion instruments), which perfectly matched the forces of Lorelei. The four Adams movements consisted of sound pieces, wordless, largely derived from motivic figures drawn from bird calls. I am not enough of an ornithologist to identify them myself, but three of them were identified as relating to the canyon wren, the dove, and the mockingbird.

Willer arranged the very old and the very new in a fresh and interesting way. Though most of the works were sung in the circle. But for the four by Adams, the singers moved to cardinal positions surrounding the entire audience, from which points, in the resonant space of the gallery, they seemed to be all nature resounding.

Each section of the show consisted of two or three of the old English songs in English, sung by one, two, or more individuals, sometimes with percussion instruments. And then a bird song from one or more of McKinley’s arrangements would come next. Periodically, violinist Andrew Kohji Taylor improvised on the tunes and materials just heard, linking the musical segments and allowing the singers to move to their next station.

Briddes World, refers to the anonymous 13th-century song Bryd one breere (“Bird on a briar”), thus highlighting the emphasis of the natural world. The elegantly sung, smoothly flowing program (which was repeated Sunday afternoon in Marsh Chapel at BU) was an utter delight from beginning to end. I’m quite sure I’ve never heard a concert that leaped easily between works composed eight centuries apart, and did so without a hint of stodgy academic lecturing, but rather as a gateway to the humanity of singers and poets then and now.

Lorelei (file photo)
Lorelei (file photo)
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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  1. This was a truly wonderful concert. The Lorelei singers were fabulous, as they always are, and Andrew Kohji Taylor played the violin extremely well. Lorelei’s concerts are remarkable events, and not to be missed!

    Comment by Susan Miron — November 10, 2015 at 7:13 pm

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