Lorelei Ensemble bridges past and present in enriching program

January 11, 2014 at 2:56 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

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

Pérotin’s music has long been the stuff of anthology recordings and musicology lectures. Rarely does one hear his works performed live, rarer still by an all-female choir.

Leave it to the Lorelei Ensemble, then, to fete the composer’s music on one of their eclectic and enriching programs. Friday night at Marsh Chapel, music of the 12th-century master stood alongside a cappella works by David Lang and a world premiere by Mary Montgomery Koppel.

Through the use of rhythmic modes, a notational development new in the learned musical circles of the time, Pérotin and Léonin extended choral works beyond the limitations of two parts. The thick, decorative music that emerged, known as the Notre Dame style, features extended melodies for three and four voices drawn out in trochaic and iambic rhythms to a single syllable of text. Its hypnotic effect, in recent years, has become a source of inspiration for composers such as Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt.

This style is most apparent in two Pérotin masterworks heard on Friday’s program, Sederunt principes and Viderunt omnes. Both pieces blend strands of polyphony and chant. Each work is threaded with short motives–called points of imitation–that trade from voice to voice. The Lorelei singers spun both works with aplomb. The persistent rhythms of Sederunt pulsed with energy, phrases of “Adjuva me,” the work’s second part, seemed to rise to the heavens in prayerful plea, and the long-winded phrases of Viderunt glistened with precision and intensity.

The composer’s syllabic Beata viscera, broken into three sections and placed at different points on the program, showcased some fine solo work. From the rear balcony, Emily Culler’s soprano wafted gently over the vocal drones. Margot Rood took up the melody, her voice ringing out the “Populus gentium.” The opening lines of “Partum quem destruis,” sung by Christina English, suffered from some pitchy intonation, but she hit her stride by mid verse. Clare McNamara brought a smooth, milky alto to the “Fermenti pessimi,” and Emily Marvosh’s amber-hued voice added weight to the “Te semper implicas.” Dum sigillum featured the singers in pairs and in full ensemble, each line shimmering due to Lorelei’s characteristic pure and ringing tone.

If words are the mistress to the music in Pérotin’s style, the two are equals in David Lang’s music. In all his works heard on the program, text and note are tied together, one dictating the momentum of the other.

That’s particularly true with evening morning day (2007). Based on the opening chapter of Genesis, the text comprises an e.e. cummings-style stream of words; each is assigned a distinct fragment of melody. The evolving ebb and flow of the music evokes, to good effect, the creation of the heavens, earth, and all living things. And each word of I lie (2001) pulses with brief, ascending note patterns. Parts split for the second verse, and by the third, the fragments give way to chords where dissonances fuse together like welded metal. Unison statements in I want to live where you live (2005) thicken into overlapping sheets of sound. Melodies chase one another and seem to trip over themselves, as if weeping, in I live in pain (2011).

This is music that seems tailormade for the Lorelei singers. Like wisps of vapor that coalesce into mountainous clouds, phrases build to impressive blocks of sound in their pristine ensemble blend. Their sharp, focused tone brought a quiet and steady energy to these haunting works.

Mary Montgomery Koppel’s La douce pensée (The sweet thought), commissioned by Lorelei, made the best of both Pérotin’s and Lang’s musical worlds.

The piece, heard in its premiere, is a mystifying, six-voice setting of a twelfth-century text by Gautier de Dargies. The opening verses converge in a dense textural swirl. Vocal drones framed solos by Culler and McNamara, their fresh, airy tones made clear the music’s modal and chromatic shading.

As the Lorelei’s composer-in-residence, Koppel has written a number of pieces for the group. Her meditative drishti premiered last year. La douce pensée is an equally strong and evocative piece, and one hopes for many more hearings beyond this performance.

The Lorelei Ensemble will perform works by Alford, Hong, Yukechev, and Gubaidulina in their final concerts of the season, 8 p.m. May 23 at Harvard’s Memorial Church and 8 p.m. May 24 at Marsh Chapel. loreleiensemble.com

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