One can always expect that the remarkable conductorless string ensemble A Far Cry will offer a fascinating and unusual program curated by one of the “Criers,” approved by the entire ensemble, and superbly played. Similarly, the remarkable nine-voice women’s ensemble Lorelei always gives listeners a fresh and unusual combination of early music and contemporary music—carefully matched, though rarely concerted together in other contexts, exhibiting exquisitely balanced voices with top musicianship. Last Friday the two ensembles joined forces for the first time in a Jordan Hall concert that blended strengths of both groups in the context of a world-premiere setting of extended passages from a new translation of Homer’s Odyssey balanced by a group of works evoking ocean voyaging, longing, and searching for home.
The first half included an “overture” for instruments alone, from Telemann’s Water Music: a movement depicting the “stormy Aeolus” blowing up a violent tempest. There followed a striking representation of Kate Soper’s Sirens for a capella vocal trio (Sarah Brailey, Meg Dudley, Sonja Tengblad). The texts in English, Latin, and Greek (the latter text a small part of the Odyssey) came across in sustained, keening sounds, excerpted from an “opera-meets-theater piece” composed in 2014. A particularly lush representation of Les Sirènes by Lili Boulanger followed, with the rocking, lulling string orchestra part arranged from the original piano score by Rafael Popper-Keizer; mezzo-soprano soloist Christina English joined the full Lorelei complement.
At this point, Lorelei founder-director Beth Willer introduced Jessica Meyer’s I long and seek after, a single movement setting a fragment from Sappho; it is part of a larger a cappella piece for the eight singers that Lorelei will premiere next season. As conductor, Willer brought out, redolent and aching longing, in both in the singing and the silences between the notes.
The first half concluded with three songs drawn from the shape-note tradition updated into more ‘modern” sounds. Carolyn Shaw’s setting of I’ll Fly Away, arranged for the evening’s forces by Karl Doty, featured mezzos Sophie Michaux and Emily Morvash, and soprano Katherine Growden, whose pure and polished voices and magnificently evoked the down-home singing of the southern Appalachians without the least hint of pandering or parody. Then, all nine Lorelei’s sang Jonathan Woody’s arrangement of Wayfaring Stranger. (Willer joined the other eight rather than conducting this time). Woody’s version grows progressively more assertive stanza by stanza, swelling to a to a gorgeous climax. The first half ended with a wonderful enhancement of Sinner Man. According to Joel Cohen, “A conflate, its harmonic underpinning is a passamezzo antico (16th-century ground bass), the melody is a fragment from a white spiritual, “The Great Day,” itself derived from a 12th-century chant about the end of the world, “Judicii Signum.” Especially commissioned for the combined ensembles from Adam Simon, the arragnement’s spirited rhythms in the stringed instruments, solo verses and choral refrains from the Lorelei singers, built to a virtuosic break for the instrumentalists as the singers urged them on with rhythmic clapping. The final climactic verse inspired wild applause.
The single work for the second half was a commissioned setting for women’s voices and string orchestra of selected passages from Emily Wilson’s acclaimed new translation of The Odyssey. The composer Kareem Roustom is Syrian-American; his work has covered strict classical genres and crossover artists as well. For this commission, he selected passages from Homer’s work representing female characters—Penelope, Circe, the sirens, and the mother of Odysseus—rather than putting most of the attention on the eponymous hero.
The first movement captures Penelope’s aching, patient waiting in a single sentence, spoken in Greek, then sung in both Greek and English, describing how she wove during the day and unwove the cloth at night. (One assumes that the listener is aware of her promise to the suitors for her hand that she will not choose another husband until she has completed the cloth.)
“Circe’s Instructions to Odysseus” is dynamic and driven, as Circe warns Odysseus of the dangers he must pass on his way to Ithaca: the sirens (and what he must do to hear their song without bringing on disaster to his men); then Scylla and Charybdis. For Scylla, the rhythm carries most of the effect, while the singers for the most part chant in unison, yet expressing the mood of each of the dangers to be encountered. The howls of Charybdis and the suggestion of how it “sucks the black water down” made a terrifying sound-image.
Quieter, but also nervous, “Penelope and the Phantom” evokes the appearance of Athena as Penelope lies asleep. She creates a female phantom who announces that her son will be returning safe, but refuses to answer her questions about Odysseus. The movement is somewhat conversational in character over a tense underpinning of string accompaniment.
Then comes the actual encounter with the sirens, who sing their “honeyed song,” sweetly luring the bound Odysseus to leap into the sea and swim to them, promising to give him greater knowledge. Again, hushed tension runs in the orchestra. In the dreamlike fifth movement, the ghost of Odysseus’s mother urges him to remember what he has seen so he can tell Penelope when he returns home. The sole instrumental movement in the piece comes next: “Interlude (Penelope Questions Odysseus),” Penelope seems to be asking urgent questions, but not yet learning all the answers she desires.
The answers come soon. In the final movement, “The Reunion of Penelope and Odysseus,” Penelope first pleads for forgiveness for her doubts about him; he has passed the test (describing the unusual feature of their bed) and she recognizes him. With pensive and poignant pleading, Odysseus takes her in his arms and they spend their first night together in 20 years. The conclusion gradually comes in a soft brightness.
The entire evening was rich in contrast and achievement, both orchestral and vocal. The special arrangements heard in the first half proved fascinating, and the major work, Kareem Roustom’s Hurry to the Light, delivered with elegance and polish, retained this listener’s interest throughout.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance 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.