Two weeks ago, “This Tyrant, Love,” Lorelei Ensemble’s first public concert in 2 years, showcased lutenist Kevin Payne within an expanded core group (from 8 to 16) comprising Artistic Director Beth Willier, soprano Corrine Byrne, Michele Kennedy, Arwin Myers, Sonja Tengblad, sopranos; Dianna Grabowski, Sophie Michaud, mezzo-sopranos; Stephanie Kacoyanis, and Clara Osowski, altos. The Longy audience registered ecstasy! What an exchange of energy!
Lutenist Kevin Payne led a first-half journey through a wide range and eclectic range of songs concerned with love, beginning in the 15th century with Luzzascho Luzzachi and ending with Laura Mvula. The second half devoted itself to selections from their ongoing project with David Lang’s “love fail.” In the first half composers in various periods comment on the painful side of this tyrannical emotion, love, while in the second half a major contemporary work posits a definitive statement on the failure of love. The texts described a progression from the romantic sentiments of Renaissance courtly love to the very contemporary emotions of Bjork and Laura Mvula. Beth Wiler led a second half in which David Lang’s words reflected on times from Marie de France to Lydia Davis, in this case alternating and contrasting rather than progressing.
The title “love fail” poses an interesting conundrum. What is love? What is failure? What would be success? Are success and failure the same for Marie De France as for Laura Mvula? David Lang noted that the Tristan and Isolde says:
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. These stories are oddly similar to the Tristan stories—they are also about love, honor and respect between two people, but they are much more recognizable to us.
So the texts of “love fail”intentionally point away from the sense of changing attitudes and toward a universality of emotion, and we realize now that Caroline Shaw’s setting of “Dolce Cantavi” of 1615 is prefiguring this. We tend to regard the subject of love with a Post-Victorian sentiment which provides a lens for judgements of success and failure. Does success implies living happily ever after, vine covered cottages and picket fences? Yet angst has certainly stimulated artistic creation over the centuries. We need look no further than the text of “right and wrong” from love fail for a modern expression of this complexity “She knows she is right, but to say she is right is wrong, in this case.” It is complicated!
As Lorelei presents early music and newly commissioned works, seemingly divergent interests often reveal similarities. How starling, for instance to heard (on NPR) a set beginning with Troppo Ben Puo by Luzzaschi, a madrigal of 1601 followed by Caroline Shaw’s beautiful 2015 setting of the poem Dolce Cantavi of 1628 by Francesca Turina Bufalini Contessa di Stupinigi and ending with Bjork’s Solstice. Hearing Bjork with ears that have been opened by the madrigal and transitioned so gracefully by the Shaw/Stupinigi collaboration! Suddenly we realize that the associations we bring to Bjork’s music are irrelevant when it is presented at this level. The syllables are assigned to the notes in ways one would expect in a renaissance madrigal, but sounds surprising in a Pop/ Techno/electronic world music context. Perhaps the lute reinforced the impression, yet Bjork’s own “Gravity Harp” makes a surprisingly similar sound. Lorelei created a space where distances of time, geography, society dissolve into a unified sonic experience, and a convincing musical logic becomes apparent.
The ensemble’s extraordinary level of precision and control allows even the smallest quavers of vocal decoration to spellbind us. Lorelei takes control of the sound waves in the room. They become not singers we hear, but rather singers who occupy space in our brains, engaging the mechanisms of our bodies to produce sound. It is all too easy to think of music as something we witness, a thing that is done to, or for us. But with Lorelei we have a different opportunity, they inhabit us. Space becomes an instrument which they use to express sensation, we feel the sound traveling and reflecting around us. It is as though sound itself had become an object of our enhanced consciousness.
Michael Scanlon has spent along life in the arts and design. He listens intently to live performance of local musicians.