Lorelei Ensemble shines in ancient and new music

November 24, 2013 at 1:32 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

The Lorelei Ensemble performed Saturday night at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel.

The Lorelei Ensemble has a way of making music of academic curiosity sound fresh and new.

Saturday night in Marsh Chapel, the eight-member female chorus offered selections of motets from the Torino Manuscript and Byzantine chant by Kassia as part of an inspirational and meditative program of ancient and modern music. Through it all, the ensemble performed with pitch-perfect resonance and hypnotic tonal blend. Conductor Beth Willer, with broad sweeping gestures, led the way.

Though centuries old, the chants and motets Lorelei performed have the transparent textures and adventurous sonorities of much twentieth-century fare.

The parallel lines of Kassia’s chant frequently fuse at close intervals for touches of dissonances.  And the motets of the Torino Manuscript, composed in the early fifteenth century for the French court in Cyprus, are examples of Ars subtilior (subtler art), a refined and flashy style common to high Medieval music where descant voices weave together in bristling harmonies and intricate cross rhythms.

The most affecting of the four Kassia pieces, Yper ton Ellinon, rang beautifully in Lorelei’s pristine blend. The five Torino motets featured fine solo singing. Among the highlights, soprano Margot Rood and alto Clare McNamara, in the Sanctus, delicately threaded their lines in a tapestry of sound.

The standout among the soloists Saturday night was soprano Sonja Tengblad, who teamed up with percussionist Jonathan Hess for Tan Dun’s Silk Road (1989).The work’s Berio-like mix of Sprechstimme and song draws upon the symbolism of a stream-of-consciousness poem by Arthur Sze.

Tengblad’s is a multi-textured, crystalline-toned voice especially suited for avant-garde music. Her singing was clear and expressive across the piece’s range of clarion pointillisms, vocal slides, whispers, and hisses. Jonathan Hess, with gently rolled roto-toms, brushed figures on marimba, and sheen from a bowed timpani rim, added shadowy and shimmering accompaniment.

As in many of their adventurous programs, the concert featured the premiere of a new work commissioned by Lorelei. Peter Gilbert’s Tsukimi (Moon Viewing) sets eight Heian-era Japanese poems that celebrate the full moon. Gilbert (b. 1975), a Harvard-trained composer who currently teaches at the University of New Mexico, writes music of gorgeous imagery. Breathy whispers and glassy sonorities wash into clusters of chords left to resonate in midair, all effectively capturing the ephemeral verses.

For each verse in the cycle, the Lorelei singers stood in different formations, once in a V-shaped pattern, other times in arching clusters of two to four singers standing at various points on stage. While the setup made for an interesting visual effect, it didn’t do very much to alter the sound.

Save for one. In the fifth song of the set, a colorful depiction of the sea, the singers faced away from the audience, their sweeps of overlapping voices floated in the chapel like distant echoes. Hess added wire-brush strokes on snare drum for gentle waves. Facing the audience out front, alto Emily Marvosh delivered the text in a haunting solo.

Similar impressionisms filled the other songs in Gilbert’s score. Wisps of birdsong melody depict the cuckoo in the seventh poem. Alto Clare McNamara delivered mournful phrases for the grief-filled sixth. In the final verse, which evokes of summer night, the Lorelei voices melded into warm harmonies that wafted like perfume over Stephanie Kacoyanis’ velvety alto solo.

Filling out the concert were selections from Tōru Takemitsu’s Wind Horse (1961-1966). “Spell of Fingers” featured the singers in edgy vocal slides and wails that coalesce into murky dissonances.  In the two wordless Vocalises that bookended the program, jagged lines momentarily froze together into spires of sound, and warm consonances were left to hang in space like rays of the sunshine.

The program repeats 3 p.m. Sunday at Marsh Chapel. loreleiensemble.com 

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