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May 312014
 

What is perhaps most astonishing is that the Lorelei Ensemble seems, in its current formation, like the most natural of phenomena.

Beth Willer & Sungji Hong talking shop at Marsh Chapel at Boston University

Beth Willer of Lorelei Ensemble and composer Sungji Hong talking shop.

By Susan Miron

In a city already teeming with excellent vocal groups, the Lorelei Ensemble, under its superb artistic director Beth Willer, has been carving out a very impressive place for itself. This was made abundantly clear at their concert last Friday (May 23) at Harvard University’s Memorial Hall and reconfirmed by their recently released CD Live, Know, Love. (Might its title be a play on the best-selling book Eat, Pray, Love?) It is the end of their fifth season. They have gotten nothing but critical acclaim and a growing group of fans.

Friday night’s concert, “Fallen,” was built around religiously-tinged themes, and only one of its composers, Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931) was well-known. There were three astonishingly good world premieres – with the composers alive and well in the audience, as well as a lengthy, eight-part song cycle, “My Heart is Ready,” by Russian composer Yuri Yukechev (b. 1947). The latter piece asserted its presence, like a powerful undertow, throughout the program.

Beth Willer, who is quickly gaining recognition as a first-class choral conductor and singer herself (she just received her Doctorate from Boston University), initially rounded up some female singers in 2007. At this point, nothing quite like Lorelei existed – an all-female group of outstanding, committed singers. Willer’s greatest ambition has been to commission new works for women’s voices, and she has succeeded enormously, with 30 new pieces already performed.

What is perhaps most astonishing is that Lorelei seems, in its current formation, like the most natural of phenomena. Each of its 9 singers, all from the Boston area, is a professional in her own right. Together, the members have achieved the fusion of a long-established string quartet. Their intonation is shockingly good, and their blend eerily perfect. Adept at both early (Medieval through Baroque) music and the sounds and soul of contemporary compositions, Lorelei has the ability to sing on its own or in smaller size chamber ensembles. They can sing a capella, accompanied, and with amplified voices. For Friday’s concert, their guest artists was a trio of trumpets – Chris Belluscio, Jonah Kappraff, and Paul Perfetti. On their CD, Johnathan Hess plays percussion on the first song, “Know what is above you” (1999) by Steve Reich (b. 1936).

The alto Emily Marvosh opened the evening with an extraordinary performance of a solo piece by Gubaidulina entitled “Aus den Visionen der Hildegard von Bingen” (“From the Visions of Hildegard von Bingen”). Written in 1994, the song features a woman singing about her vision of God, and it is filled with big leaps of intervals, with very high and very low notes. The high notes here, like most of the ensemble’s high notes, sounded particularly otherworldly in the church’s resonant acoustics. Marvosh’s pitch was dead-on perfect.

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Yuri Yukechev’s “My Heart is Ready,” which takes its lyrics from the Psalms, formed the backbone of the program. Sung at its beginning by two singers, it had the sound of early Church music. As the piece progressed, more voices were added until, at its end, 8 singers and a conductor were singing as seamlessly and in tune as when there were only two voices. Cumulatively, this is a most powerful piece. I would like very much to hear it again.

The first of the program’s world premieres was Daniel Schlosberg’s (b. 1987) “So We must Make the Journey Around the World,” which is based on Heinrich von Kleist’s essay “Über das Marionettentheater.” The performance was stunning. Eight conducted singers in unison intoned: “Paradise is locked The angels are behind us So we must make the journey around the world To discover a secret opening at the back.” It was a lush, luscious experience that built up to a powerful crescendo in which all the ensemble members ended on high notes. It was very moving, very enjoyable. I hope to hear more from this young composer.

Three more psalm settings by Yukuchev (including “Depart from evil, and do good, and you will live forever”) followed before the arrival of another world premiere, Sungji Hong (b. 1973)’s “Ficus enim non florebit” (“Although the fig tree shall not blossom”). The piece sets material from the Habukkuk (King James Version), ending on the line “and he will make me to walk upon mine high places, singing,” as did the five Lorelei voices, beautifully.

After a brief intermission, Gubaidulina’s “Trio for Three Trumpets” (1976) was a mystical mood changer, dwelling on contemplative themes of redemption and salvation. Yekuchev’s last three Psalms of David, “My Heart is Ready,” were full of interesting harmonies and featured a gorgeous solo by Clare McNamara.

The printed program continued with Travis Alford’s “O Fragile Human Speak…” which draws on material from Hildegard von Bingen’s (1098-1179) prose piece Scivias. It is a description of the 12th century mystic’s vision of creation, followed by its fall and final redemption. In five continuous sections, the three visiting trumpets interwove nimbly with the voices; the piece ends on a note of deep peacefulness after the pandemonium of judgment (lightning, thunder, winds, tempests).

To wind things up, Willer joined her chorus as an alto: all nine women sang Pavel Chesnolov’s (1877-1944) “Salvation is Created” (“in the midst of earth”) from the Communion Hymn for Fridays. The deeply appreciative audience received a bonus – Rachmaninoff’s “Bogoroditsye Devo” (from his Vespers), was sung, like everything else on Friday evening, with beauty and rapture.


Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and plays the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.

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