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Sappho Shines

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Lorelei’s nine extraordinary female singers, including the group’s gifted director Beth Willer, gave a superb and original concert to an enthusiastic crowd at First Church Cambridge last Saturday, featuring the world premiere Jessica Meyer’s commissioned settings of passages from Sappho. The four other works of varying lengths and complexity ranged from Perotin’s Sederunt principes (composed around 1200) to works written in the last decade by Sungji Hong, David Lang, and a traditional folksong arranged and adapted by Jonathan Woody. This show will tour widely during the coming year; sadly, this was Lorelei’s only appearance in Boston this season.

A modern setting by the Korean composer Sungji Hong (b. 1973), of the five fixed sections of the Ordinary of the Mass got things started. She entitled the work with a phrase from the Credo: Lumen de lumine (Light of light). She had written this substantial piece for three voice parts as if coming from the 15th century, perhaps. Beth Willer explained that when she had heard it several years ago sung by the Trio Mediaeval, for which it was composed, she determined to add it to Lorelei’s repertory. Since the Mass had been composed in three parts, she decided to assign each section to a different solo trio, and only joining all nine singers, with three on a part, for the final Agnus Dei.

It is essentially polyphonic, though the voices come together in a chordal close at the end of each section. The harmony is not a duplication of the relative sweetness that developed in the 15th century, and certainly not that of the 16th century. The vocal character and layout are relatively similar to the older traditions of liturgical music, going even as far back as the earliest notated music for multiple voices from Medieval Notre Dame. The changing groups of three soloists per section gave each member of the ensemble a chance to shine, from Sarah Brailey’s soaring high soprano to the low alto of Emily Marvosh and Stephanie Kacoyanis.

This similarity—not absolute, but nonetheless strong—was evident in the one truly old classic on the program: Sederunt omnes, by Perotin, composed about 1200 for the Feast of St. Stephen at Notre Dame. In both works, moving parts clashed in dissonant sonorities (seconds, sevenths) and landed on perfect intervals (fourth, fifths, octaves) at points of relative repose. The Perotin moved in many places in a lilting rhythm (sounding like multiples for subdivisions of 6/8 time) owing to recently developed notational inventions allowing the parts to be measured and sung together without falling apart. The Hong mass had its own rhythmic movement that was generally freer and more flexible than the older style. Nonetheless, the two pieces clearly seemed to come from the same world, even though at a difference of 800 years.

In both cases, the presence of moments of silence appearing between strongly sung phrases allowed the acoustical space of the First Church to resonate like a cathedral, the kind of ringing sound that would have been sought in the cathedrals of past periods.

The second half of the program begins with a work by David Lang (b.1957), a co-founder of the Bang on a Can group and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for The Little Match Girl Passion, which came from a fusion of elements from Hans Christian Andersen’s story and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Lang built   just (after song of songs) on a text that he drew out—extensively—from the Biblical Song of Songs. He chose to list the attributes that the man and the woman, who are represented as lovers, notice about one another, drawn consecutively from the entire book, where they appear with many repetitions. Each of these is presented in a short phrase mostly of two or three (occasionally four) words. He shapes the attributes in such a way as to indicate the speaker by having the man’s words begin with “just your [attribute]” and the woman’s to begin with “and my [attribute]”—running like beads on a string, each utterance separated by silence from the next throughout the piece.

The score calls for the vocal ensemble accompanied by two solo strings (viola and cello, played by Jessica Meyer and Leo Eguchi, respectively) and three percussion instruments (marimba, xylophone, bass drum). In general, the instruments play extremely softly. The xylophone plays a single note to cue choral entrances rhythmically; the marimba (played by soprano Sonja Tengblad while singing her part) and often the cello (pizzicato) accompany in unison the “attribute” words. The bass drum (alto Stephanie Kacoyanis) is kept almost at the lowest edge of audibility. And the viola, sometimes with the cello, plays sustained notes quietly. With this hushed sonic background, the voices sing together the individual phrases, always separated from the next, with a steady backdrop of beats (eighth notes?) in groupings mostly by nines. A single pitch, unchanging throughout, from the xylophone (director Beth Willer) sounded once a beat before each new vocal entrance. The text runs for a page and a half of assertions like this:

and your cheeks
and your neck
and your couch
and my perfume
and my beloved
and my breasts           

throughout the score. The words are always uttered gently, in a quite steady rhythm, rising to slightly fuller expression, but ultimately dying away in a more sustained choral sound. The evident “monotony” of all this repetition gives the overall effect of a quietly passionate love the continues on and on and on.

The featured work of the program was the commissioned new composition by Jessica Meyer, one small part of which was presented in a Jordan Hall concert that Lorelei offered with the string ensemble A Far Cry about a year ago Cry (reviewed HERE). The sample was intriguing, but the entire work was especially enthralling.

Jessica Meyer received the invitation to write I Long, and Seek After from the Lorelei Ensemble thanks to the Dale Warland Singers Commissioning Award presented by Chorus America in partnership with the American Composers Forum.

The composer explained that, in her early 20s, she had fallen in love with the repertory of German Lieder and Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben. By the time she was some 20 years older, she had come to realize that the life of a woman depicted in the Schumann cycle (the poet of which was a man) was far from realistic. The experiences of a woman poet—the ancient Greek Sappho, as translated by Anne Carson—were expressed in passionately intense poetry, much of which survives only in fragments, lending a still more intense feeling. Meyer explained in her essay, “I wanted to create a cycle that depicts women having the courage to live their life boldly, while growing older gracefully, assuredly, and proudly.”

Mere fragments resulted from her text choices, even incomplete lines, unfolding in a wide range of emotions—hoping, dreaming, reaching a height of passion, hints of disagreement and parting and suffering, with remembrance of both painful part of a relationship now past. The Lorelei singers projected these changing moods intensely, whether all but whispering or keening at full volume (soprano Meg Dudley, mezzo Christina English). At the very beginning of the piece, they all moved, slowly but freely around the stage, turning this way and that, whispering non-singing sibilant sounds, and only gradually moving into the pitched singing that forms the bulk of the work. They met the challenge of this performance fully, richly. The talk about the piece—it was widely discussed—at the reception following the concert—showed how effectively Meyer had hit the mark. More than one audience member suggested that this was a “Me, Too” cantata. It will be a featured work in the tours this year.

Lorelei (file photo)

The concert ended with another work that followers of Lorelei had heard before, Jonathan Woody’s arrangement of the traditional song I am a poor wayfarin’ stranger. He noted that, given the virtuosity of the Lorelei Ensemble, “I took on the challenge to try to capture the essence of the ensemble’s expertise in one arrangement.”  The song has three stanzas, with the first in a Celtic folk tradition (probably rather as it was traditionally sung) with a call-and-response pattern. Here visiting mezzo-soprano Carrie Charon, who also writes and sings folk songs with guitar, seemed especially at home. Given the extensive performing experience of the ensemble in Medieval music, he made the second stanza s reference to Hildegard von Bingen “modernized somewhat with an aleatoric effect.” The final stanza, evoking vigorous New England shape-note singing, brought the entire audience to its feet for a sustained ovation,

Beth Willer explained that the title of the program, Without Walls, seemed fitting because much of the music chosen was conceived to present the kind of musical expression and even an actual piece (the Perotin) that would not have been performed by women before recent times. As their fans have come to recognize, the original conception of the program, as well as the commanding perfection of the ensemble and the singing, once again made for a memorable evening.

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.

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