Lorelei Ensemble offers three premieres in a program of reverence and loss

January 19, 2013 at 5:08 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

The Lorelei Ensemble performed three premieres Friday night at Marsh Chapel, a program to be repeated at Harvard tonight.

Boston University’s Marsh Chapel filled with the sound of heavenly voices Friday night when the Lorelei Ensemble explored a panorama of music from three centuries. In a program titled “Lineage,” the nine-member group performed sacred choral pieces from Reformation-era England, to early American works of the late 1700s, and premieres of three contemporary works written for the all-female ensemble.

Music from this wide range of historical eras showcased Lorelei’s greatest strength: its pristine vocal tone. The singers elegantly matched one other to produce a warm ensemble sound that rang full in the chapel.

In the concert’s first half, the ensemble split into smaller choirs of four and five singers each to alternate works by John Sheppard, William Byrd and the self-taught American composer William Billings, giving sopranos Sonja Tengblad and Jessica Petrus and altos Clare McNamara and Stephanie Kacoyanis the chance to shine in more intimate settings.

Billings’ fugal tune Wake Ev’ry Breath, which possesses the characteristic wide harmonies of Sacred Harp hymnody, provided an interesting alternative to more elegantly crafted works, such as Sheppard’s Audivi vocem di caelo venientem and Byrd’s O Gloriosa Domina. With each piece, the Lorelei singers performed with attention to the music’s intricate phrasing with crisp diction and pitch-perfect sonority.

Renaissance works also peppered the concert’s second half, when Lorelei gave charming performances of Sheppard’s In manus tuas and Thomas Tallis’s Sancte Deus with elegant, rounded phrasing and characteristic warm tone.

In addition to a mix of old and new, themes of reverence, loss, and redemption could have served as an alternate narrative to the concert.

After opening with a chant, the reverential Magnificat, Lorelei followed with Paul Chihara’s modern take on the Latin chant, a contemporary Magnificat that incorporates biting clusters of chords and close harmonies of minor seconds that freeze in mid air, remaining unresolved. Chihara, a composer based at UCLA, treats the text in a declamatory style where phrases that originate in the alto voices rise gradually through the texture to peak with the upper sopranos. The only consonant harmony comes at the end of the piece.

A more emotionally-charged take on the Latin text, Joshua Shank’s Magnificat for the Mother of Plaza de Mayo—one of the premiered pieces—served as the centerpiece of the second half. Based in part on texts from Matilde Mellibovsky’s testimonial Circle of Love Over Death, Shank’s powerful work tells the heartbreaking story of Argentina’s “Dirty War” of 1976-1983, when military officials abducted and, in some documented cases, murdered the children of those who resisted the military dictatorship then in power. Mellibovsky herself was a mother of one of the abducted children.

Lorelei artistic director Beth Willer noted that Shank’s four movements for female choir and piano are an interim “cantata version” of a larger project that is yet to be completed. But even this truncated form was enough for such heavy subject matter.

Shank, 32, a doctoral student at UT Austin, makes handy but not heavy-handed use of chilling dissonances in his choral writing. The voices coalesce over a sparse and dark-hued piano accompaniment, which Joe Turbessi handled deftly.

Most dramatic was the third movement, a piece for solo alto and piano set to two lines from Mellibovsky’s book: “Many months went by until I was able to talk about my son. I couldn’t speak his name,” an aching lamentation similar to the central movement from Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (No. 3). Here, Shank treats the text in a declaratory style. Each word gradually builds upon another as the music, in answer, slowly winds with greater tension. Lorelei alto Emily Marvosh, with her silvery, lush voice, performed these lines with a moving and bitter touch.

The final movement draws from some of the more disturbing passages from Mellibovsky’s book. The choir sang the lines “After fifteen days she disappeared. Those who saw her told me she returned in a bag cut up with a saw, her eyes jabbed out” with an almost unbearable tension filled with anger and hopelessness.

Another of the evening’s premieres, was written by Lorelei composer-in-residence Mary Montgomery Koppel. Her drishti, a trance-like piece designed to capture the focal point in meditation, opens with a dense panorama of vocals chords and full-bodied organ accompaniment, played definitively by Carson Cooman. From the clamorous beginning, the music gradually softens in dynamics and range– the upper and lower extremes slowly merge to a middle ground. The work ends with all performers holding a single note, achieving the balance point.

Swedish composer Karin Höghielm’s Motet, the final premiere, is a setting of the Beatitudes for female choir and organ. In this more celebratory and eclectic work, Höghielm employs unresolved dissonances—seconds, fourths, and sevenths that are almost a cliché in new choral music—to good effect in the soft opening. The folk-like middle section, where the singers clap out a 5/8 rhythm and sing nothing more than the syllables “le-le-le” in high sustained pitches, loosely resembles Steve Reich’s Tehillim. The closing featured the sopranos singing the prayer “Glory be to the Father” over undulating accompanying phrases in the altos and an organ sustain.

Through it all, Beth Willer conducted with a relaxed control of the tempos and even-handed approach to the dynamic shadings in these scores, enabling the singers of this fine ensemble to bring out the dramatic subtlety in the widely varied music.

The program repeats 8 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Church, Harvard University. loreleiensemble.com

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Lorelei Ensemble offers three premieres in a program of reverence and loss”

  1. Posted Jan 20, 2013 at 8:41 pm by Nancy Kelly Montgomery

    This wonderful review captures so much of what is achingly, exquisitely special about a Lorelei performance. Bravo to all involved.

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