IN: Reviews

Siren Songs from Lorelei


Lorelei Ensemble (file photo)
Lorelei Ensemble (file photo)

Nothing in this fair city pleases quite like a Lorelei Ensemble concert. Bringing together singers familiar from other excellent groups in town, together they become an awesome force. Beth Willer, Artistic Director, program annotator, and alto, wrote in her notes that a few years ago, that Lorelei

…made a subconscious decision to shift our visual ‘brand’ as an ensemble. We increasingly began to dress in photos and performance as distinct individuals. This visual presentation ran parallel to our unofficial commitment to presenting ourselves as nine soloists lending themselves to a unified ensemble sound… It is rare to find ensemble repertoire that naturally encourages and accepts individuality.

In Sunday’s “Part and Parcel,” Lorelei aimed “to exhibit the virtues of both solitude and community—the part and the parcel of ensemble work.” Presented in a cavernous former Cadillac showroom, now the 808 Gallery, the concert began with six singers sitting on a bench; each then offered an unaccompanied piece of her choosing. The idea was for the audience to move around this space, following the next singer, who might have already begun her music. It unfolded a tad like a progressive dinner party.

“O cam magnum miraculum” by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) began exquisitely with mezzo-soprano Clare McNamara to the accompaniment of mezzo-soprano Sophie Michaux’s accordion. Lorelei had done a lot of von Bingen in its early years. (Willer mentioned how the group grappled with the ambiguous notation. “We have to hook into each other mentally.”) It sounded otherworldly in this huge space.  McNamara was joined by mezzo-soprano Christina English and soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad in Kate Soper’s (b. 1981) “Songs for Nobody: Love Winter When the Plant Says Nothing.” The text by Thomas Merton was one of three of his used on this program.

 A world premiere of “The Last Rose,” by Jessica Meyer (b. 1974) who was in the audience, reached one of the evening’s high points. The fearless doubler, soprano/cellist Sarah Brailey made of it something truly affecting. Its text, “Tis the Last Rose of Summer,” by Thomas Merton, was illustrated cleverly by the cello. As “the gems drop away,” there came poignant two-note descending figures, then pizzicatti, and finally a silenced cello for the last two lonely lines, “Oh, who would inhabit This bleak world alone?” Christina English then joined the cello for Libby Larsen’s (b. 1950) lovely “Liebeslied” set cleverly to a famous text by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Tengblad, who impressed me last week in Bach’s Magnificat for Handel and Haydn, dazzled in Berio’s ultra-virtuosic “Sequenza III,” written in 1965 for Cathy Barbarian. It incorporates most, if not all, imaginable sounds a singer might make, showing off “one’s inner craziness.” Two days later, I remain blown away. Berio’s notes describe it pithily:

The voice carries always an excess of connotations, whatever it is doing. From the grossest of noises to the most delicate of singing, the voice always means something, always refers beyond itself and creates a huge range of associations. In Sequenza III I tried to assimilate many aspects of everyday vocal life, including trivial ones, without losing intermediate levels or indeed normal singing. In order to control such a wide range of vocal behavior, I felt I had to break up the text in an apparently devastating way, so as to be able to recuperate fragments from it on different expressive planes, and to reshape them into units that were not discursive but musical. The text had to be homogeneous, in order to lend itself to a project that consisted essentially of exorcising the excessive connotations and composing them into musical units. This is the “modular” text written by Markus Kutter for Sequenza III.

Give me a few words for a woman
to sing a truth allowing us
to build a house without worrying before night comes

In Sequenza III the emphasis is given to the sound symbolism of vocal and sometimes visual gestures, with their accompanying “shadows of meaning”, and the associations and conflicts suggested by them. For this reason, Sequenza III can also be considered as a dramatic essay whose story, so to speak, is the relationship between the soloist and her own voice.

Dramatic is indeed an understatement. Every noise/sound and gesture is indicated in the text but it resembles nothing more than a singer having a total nervous breakdown. In order of appearance, there was fast nonsense syllables, humming, singing with one’s mouth partially covered, laughing, clicking of fingers, more nonsense talk, laughing, trilling, imitating an opera singer, covering the mouth with one hand, while adjusting pitch and volume with the other hand, and more of the same. It took enormous focus and energy, to say nothing of opera and jazz chops. Tengblad amazed!

Kate Soper’s “Song for Nobody,” text by Thomas Merton, featured Emily Marvosh, Brailey, and Michaux with her accordion. Then Marvosh deftly word-painted while she tambourined in D. J. Sparr’s (b. 1975) “William and Emily” (text by Edgar Lee Masters). The tambourine’s rattling on “Death itself” made a clever touch. Marvosh’s true contralto timbre proved pleasing and distinctive. Another highlight of this unusual concert arrived when Michaux accompanied herself on the accordion in a deeply affecting interpretation of a Yiddish song, “Oy, Avram!” The first half finished with the third “Song for Nobody” (six singers) by Soper and Hildegard’s beauteous “O virgo ac diadema.” (seven singers in unison). Phew. Overwhelming.

Many works on the second half were drawn from the ensemble’s recent CD, “Impermanence.” At this point, I didn’t have to move around to hear the singers and could just listen to gorgeous, isorythmic and cantilena motets of the early Renaissance master Guillaume Du Fay and 15th-century works from the French-Cypriot “Turin Manuscript.” The songs ravished with what Beth Willer calls “the graceful dance of ensemble artistry.”

See related interview here.

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


The Lorelei Ensemble will be on the Symphony Hall stage February 9, 10 and 11 with the B.S.O. in George Benjamin’s “Dream of the Song,” which they premiered last summer at Tanglewood.

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