Lorelei Ensemble utterly mesmerized Sunday at the Gardner. Led by Artistic Director Beth Willer, the Lorelei ‘s eight superb, independent women’s voices function admirably as solo, duets, trios, and quartets of voices. Many of the singers are recognizable from their participation in some of the most prestigious choral groups in the Boston area. On Sunday, they were nattily clad in variations of black and white, mostly alluring dresses with one pants suit (Emily Marvosh) thrown into the mix. (Margot Rood had a sensational black and white polka dot flared skirt and fun black and white shoes). Standing in a circle, they made a striking appearance. Their music-making (which included a few instruments) was similarly striking from this must-see, must-hear ensemble.
In addition to its extraordinary performances, the all-women’s ensemble has commissioned and premiered some 40 works since its founding in 2007. For this outing, just days after receiving its first review—a rave—in the New York Times, the ensmele performed “Love Fail” (2012) by the Pulitzer Prize winning (2008) composer David Lang. The choral version, written for Lorelei, which premiered at this concert, was co-commissioned by Anonymous 4 and a half-dozen arts organizations. Several movements of “love fail” can be heard on You Tube (with Anonymous 4).
Based on the popular legend of Tristan and Isolde, “love fails” culls the texts for its dozen songs from an unusually wide variety of sources. The composer explains: “I thought I might learn something about love if I could explore this in a piece, putting details abstracted from many different retellings of Tristan and Isolde next to texts that are more modern, more recognizable to us, more real. I scoured the literature and took my favorite weird incidents from the originals…. I compiled the oddest incidents from these versions of their romance, took out all the names or technological information that would make the texts seem ancient, and put them next to stories by the contemporary author Lydia Davis.” It worked surprisingly well. This is a piece I would love to hear again.
I was hooked from the opening song (words by David Lang, after Gottfried von Strassburg) “he was and she was” in which Tristan is first described “he was a blessed man he was an understanding man (ecstatic man, a joyful man, etc.) followed by a “she was” octet of adjectives, and then repeated, a cascade of complimentary descriptions sung with angelic lightness. I have never been a big fan of the minimalist writer Lydia Davis, but the four songs set to her texts worked uncannily well.
A few singers did double duty, playing a wood block, a shell that sounded like a shofar played by Beth Willer, a xylophone, bells. “The Outing,” (words by Lydia Davis) had the accompanying singers spookily making breath-like sounds. This is followed by “I live in pain” (words by David Lang, after Beatriz, Comtessa de Dia). Here the woman is mourning someone she loved beyond measure. “I want him more than any long-forgotten lovers ever loved before.” She then implores to him directly, “You know how much I want you. Promise me you will do what I saw, please. Do what I say.”
Before leaving the enchanted world of the hour-long cycle, we were rewarded by another David Lang song. A full house received all with great enthusiasm. Brava to all the singers: sopranos Sonja Tengblad, Margo Rood, Jessica Petrus, Corrine Byrne, and Beth Willer; mezzo-sopranos Christina English and Clare McNamara, and altos Emily Marvosh and Stephanie Kacoyanis.
On May 13th and 14th, Lorelei will premiere Reiko Yamada’s interactive concert work, “Mask Your Sonic Story” for women’s voices and percussion with the Boston Percussion Group.