Lorelei Ensemble ranges far and near with Hildegard, two world premieres

May 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm

By David Wright

The Lorelei Ensemble closed its season with a wide-ranging program Friday night at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel.

Lorelei Ensemble, the eight-woman a cappella group that explores the frontiers of repertoire for female voices, gave a concert Friday night in Boston University’s Marsh Chapel that featured the world premieres of two works composed in 2013 along with music dating back as far as the 12th century.

As the evening went on, the imaginative singers, under the direction of the group’s founder and artistic director Beth Willer, created sounds that evoked an organ, a physics experiment, a lover, spirits rapping on a table, and much else besides. They seemed capable of anything except vibrato, and even that cropped up now and then as a special effect, startling in this context.

The concert’s overall title was “Pilgrimages,” an allusion to works on the program such as Guillaume Du Fay’s Rite majorem Jacobum canamus (celebrating the pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James the Greater at Compostela) and Reiko Yamada’s A Field Guide to Pilgrim Tracks, and also an elastic spiritual metaphor that could encompass most of the other works on the program.

All did not go perfectly smoothly in presenting the new works. In the age of music composition software and multimedia, the wet-ink premiere has been replaced by the glitchy-electronics premiere.

The audience wasn’t admitted to the chapel until eight o’clock, the concert’s appointed starting time, and the intermission was prolonged by 15 or 20 minutes while persons in the chapel’s chancel (including composer Yamada) tinkered with the rear-projection screen, laptop, and projector.

The performance of Yamada’s work was interrupted briefly when the screen displayed a computer menu instead of the intended artwork. But in the age of balky PowerPoints, one expects these things, and it wasn’t hard to re-focus on the piece when it resumed.

And the two new works proved well worth waiting for. The Familiar Spirit by Isaac Schankler, inspired by the earliest accounts of table-rapping spiritualism in upstate New York, evoked both the desire to believe in communication with loved ones in the spirit world and the Barnumesque flim-flam that grew up around it in 19th-century America.

The text by poet Amaranth Borsuk used Poe-like rhythmic wordplay to suggest the spirits’ tapping and ambiguous messages, and also the childish fun of the two little girls who set off the whole phenomenon in 1848 with their over-imaginative accounts of noises in the house. One hoped the listeners had read through the lively text before the performance, since the piece was performed in total darkness except for the video and the performers’ stand lights. (Well, not quite total. Perhaps for theological reasons, the wood figure of Christ above the altar was left gently illuminated, and glowed benignly over the two premieres as an additional spiritual presence.)

Shankler’s score used every kind of vocal texture from lush chords to intense unison drones (reminiscent of music by Hildegard von Bingen heard earlier in the program) to onomatopoeic staccato tapping to contrapuntal speech. Wood percussion and a hand-clapping counting game, mingling with electronic roars and thumps, evoked knocking spirits and child’s play.

The video by Christopher O’Leary was a gentle spaceship ride through a sort of classical Greek portal into a spirit world of stars and nebulae, or possibly a psychedelic aquarium of colorful corals, anemones and waving seaweed. To call it wallpaper would be an injustice, but it did form an unobtrusive backdrop to the very active sound world of the performance.

Conductor Willer presided over what appeared to be a well-oiled performance, in which visuals, electronics, percussion, singing, and vocal special effects worked together effectively.

Yamada’s Field Guide delved even deeper than the previous piece into the sounds a human larynx can produce. In fact, composer Shankler might want to avail himself of some of Yamada’s spooky buzzes, clicks and croaks if he ever revises The Familiar Spirit.

The performance began with one singer lighting a candelabra in the center of the arc of music stands–again the only light in the room other than stand lights, the video and the lit statue—and closed with three singers blowing out the candles.

The singers displayed a new kind of virtuosity in their peeps, yips, flutters, glissandos, and a certain type of rapid-fire, string-like tremolo on one note. But they had to share the (metaphorical) spotlight with a wide variety of electronic and video effects, including amplification and alteration of their own voices in a wash of sound that sometimes coalesced into recognizable chords.

The video by Sybille Irma played an active role in this work, mixing still images of overlapping bootprints, woven textiles, loose threads, and stylized forest scenes—all somehow evocative of pilgrims and their environment—with motion footage of trains and boats, returning often to the striking visual pun of a wooden rail crossing sign as a kind of two-armed sign of the cross. (And all with a wooden Christ looking on.)

Again, Willer led an intense, well-knit performance, rich in sound color and effect.

The Lorelei singers performed without conductor in the concert’s first half, using five compositions to demonstrate the remarkable variety-within-similarity of medieval music.

Such is our typical wrong-end-of-the-telescope view of the Middle Ages that we would even consider comparing the music of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) to that of Guillaume Du Fay (1397-1478), which in terms of separation in time is like comparing Heinrich Schütz to Elliott Carter.

One might expect Du Fay to have a more “developed” composing technique, and in some ways he does, with his complex textures and malleable harmonies. But there is in Hildegard’s music a spareness and economy, coupled with (in this performance) intense expressivity, that appeals to a modern sensibility.

On Friday, the fairly dry acoustics of the smallish chapel provided just enough reverberation to help the voices blend, without blurring the details.

Du Fay’s Rite and Flos florum, for the full ensemble and a trio respectively, had strong rhythmic currents under the serene surface. In the latter, true to its flowery title, the three voices bloomed and intertwined deliciously.

In Hildegard’s Vos flores rosarum, O nobilissima viriditas and O tu suavissima, robustly-sung unison lines—like Gregorian chant, but more venturesome—tended to end on a long held note, against which one voice (or sometimes, amazingly, two) would cut loose in a vibrant, melismatic, improvised-sounding solo.

Micro-imperfections in tuning—or just differences in vocal timbre—made the held notes seem to wave and shimmer in space, while the soloist’s vibratoless tones interacted with the long note to set off a variety of acoustical beats, flutters and other interference effects rarely heard outside a physics lab.

The solos were rich in character, be it ecstatic, whimsical, or erotic (in a spiritual sense, of course). The individual singers—whose program biographies revealed considerable experience in music of more recent eras—made the most of these opportunities for red-blooded expression within their clear, vibratoless timbre.

This was, all in all, an evening of highly imaginative music-making and media art, even if, for now, the ensemble’s pilgrimage through the earliest and the latest music seems to be moving on separate tracks. One hopes the group’s new-music initiative, with the typographically-challenging name “Lorelei unPLUGGED,” will turn up a Hildegard von Brookline to pull it all together for us.

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