United States Sacred Music in a Sacred Space – Various Composers: Lorelei Ensemble / Beth Willer (Artistic Director), Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, New York, 14.4.2019. (RP)
John Luther Adams – ‘The Hour of the Doves’ (Canticles of the Holy Wind)
Anonymous – ‘Worldes blis ne last no throwe’ (1265); ‘Mirie it is while sumer I last’ (1225); ‘Byrd one brere’ (13th C.); ‘Westron Wynde’ (10th C.); ‘Quant le russinol se cesse’ (13th C.); ‘Stand wel moder’ (13th C.); ‘Perspice Christicola/Sumer is icumen in’ (13th C.)
Maggi Payne – Desertscapes
Kassia – ‘I en polles amarties’
Daniel Schlosberg – ‘so we must make the journey around the world’
Yuri Yukachev – My Heart is Ready
David Lang – ‘evening morning day’
Pavel Chesnokov – ‘Salvation is Created’
Lorelei is a gutsy name for a women’s vocal ensemble. It is actually a rock along the Rhine, but in 1801 Clemens Brentano created the legend of Lore Lay. Accused of bewitching men and then murdering them, she leapt to her death rather than be confined to a nunnery, leaving behind only her echo. Heinrich Heine in his 1824 poem ‘Die Lorelei’ has her sitting atop the cliff combing her luxuriant hair, all the while luring sailors to their deaths with her songs. It did make one wonder what was running through Beth Willer’s mind when she settled upon the name for the remarkable Boston-based Lorelei Ensemble that she founded in 2007.
The eight women (nine when Willer joins them rather than conducting) who make up the ensemble are all professional singers equipped with impeccable musicianship, rock solid vocal technique and distinct personas. They bring these qualities to bear in spunky, piquant performances of music from the Middle Ages to the present that are as smoothly choreographed as they are sung. It was an emersion into a mystical, mesmerizing world of sound unlike any I have ever encountered.
For their concert in the Neo-Baroque Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on New York’s Upper East Side, Lorelei presented a two-part program with works that ranged from ninth-century Byzantine chant to twenty-first-century minimalism. The first half was called Briddes World, taken from the Old English word for a young bird, and it explored the spiritual and the natural. Interspersed throughout were arresting settings of Medieval songs (the type that are attributed to a manuscript and not a composer). In the second half, So We Must Make the Journey, Lorelei sang works that explored the breadth and depth of human loss and weakness, although it ended rather gloriously.
They began with ‘The Hour of the Doves’ from John Luther Adams’s Canticles of the Holy Wind. Adams’s music is influenced by the natural world, so sounds – in this instance bird calls – often take the place of words. The singers fanned out through the church, and it was as if you were in the middle of an aviary with each bird having its distinctive call and personality.
Later in the first half, they performed Maggi Payne’s Desertscapes, in which she set her own texts describing four arid landscapes in the Western United States: Pyramid Lake in winter, Bryce Canyon, Death Valley and The Devil’s Playground in Petrified Forest National Park. The women’s pure voices tuned perfectly, creating exquisite dissonances. Layers of sound emerged distinctly as syllables, words and phrases seamlessly flowed, creating moods at times placid and at others agitated but always vibrant and scintillating.
Another extended work came in the second half of the program: My Heart Is Ready (‘Gotovo serdtse moyo’) in which Ukrainian composer Yuri Yukechev set eight verses from the Psalms of David, five of which were performed. A voice is added with each successive movement until a total of eight are heard in the final one. The solo voices singing distinct melodies based on Russian liturgical chants intertwined with lush polyphonic sound to create music of great beauty and power.
Lorelei also performed ‘so we must make the journey around the world’ by Brooklyn-based composer Daniel Schlosberg. It is a setting of a short excerpt from Heinrich von Kleist’s essay on puppet theater published in 1810. Kleist, who later took his and his wife’s lives in a murder/suicide, wrote on the then-popular theme that puppets have a grace which humans do not. This passage tells of their need to make a journey around the world to discover a secret opening to Paradise, the gates of which are locked. Schlosberg deconstructed the text and compressed it into a small musical gem. Stylistically, it ran the gamut from beguiling melodies with rich harmonizations to fractured phrases with irregular rhythms and repeated syllables and words, the latter owing a strong debt to earlier American minimalists.
The Medieval songs in the first half of the program offered not only variety but also the opportunity to hear so many of the singers as soloists. They varied from the joyous ‘Mirie it is while sumer I last’, sung to the accompaniment of the hurdy-gurdy and tambourine, to the rousing ‘Westron Wynde’ which was almost New Age in its sensibilities. The most delicate was ‘Byrd one brere’, a love song performed simply and charmingly to the accompaniment of a mandolin.
There were other treasures, such as ‘I en polles amarties’ (‘The Fallen Woman’) by the ninth-century abbess and composer Kassia, who was born in Constantinople and died on the Greek Island of Kasos. To the strains of Byzantine chant, Kassia set a prayer of Mary Magdalene who, despite her sins, had risen to be a myrrh-bearer at the burial of the Crucified Christ but still pleads for forgiveness and mercy. David Lang’s ‘evening morning day’ was a hypnotic setting of his textural reconstruction of the creation of the world as set forth in the Book of Genesis. Its most striking moments came when the singers zeroed in on one word that grew in complexity and length through repetition and an expansion of sound, volume and texture.
The concert ended with Pavel Chesnokov’s ‘Salvation is Created’, a setting of Psalm 73 with Alleluias that found immediate popularity when published in English in 1913. Performed in the original Russian, the powerful yet crystalline voices of these modern-day Lorelei sent its soaring, sweeping climaxes resonating through the vast church. It stayed with me long after the concert had ended.