Beth Willer founded Lorelei Ensemble in 2007 as a sort of pickup group. She was in a master’s degree program in choral conducting at Boston University; a composer friend had written a piece for female voices, and Willer had access to a strong circle of singers. For a couple of seasons her assemblage existed from concert to concert.
Now, on the threshold of ending its fifth full season, Lorelei has become a professional nine-voice group on what Willer calls a “mission” to expand the canon for women’s voices. “I think that this kind of ensemble was just lacking in this region,” said Willer by phone, “and, I might say, in the US — a group of this caliber, doing this kind of repertoire.”
As the group has evolved, Willer’s career has grown. When we spoke, she was walking to the baccalaureate service for BU’s commencement, where she was to receive her doctorate. It came in the midst of preparations for two Lorelei concerts this weekend. “It’s been a bit of a full week,” she admitted.
Willer draws Lorelei’s repertoire mostly from old music — a program presented last November showcased lesser-known medieval gems from Greece and Cyprus, for instance — and new, emphasizing the latter. Indeed, she views expanding the catalog of music for women’s voices as paramount, and each Boston program contains at least one world premiere. Since its beginning, the group has introduced more than 30 new works, an impressive number by virtually any metric.
Still, the idea of a women’s vocal ensemble might spur thoughts of nuns, cloisters, and other antediluvian images. In which case, you might wonder why this is a musical tradition worth not only revisiting but extending.
“Part of the reason I founded the ensemble, and part of the reason people come back to our concerts, is because I think this group of women and the specific way they deliver the repertoire is so raw and polished at the same time,” Willer said. “There’s a sound that people expect from an all-women vocal ensemble, and I think we’re working to broaden that expectation, to sort of push those borders of what is possible.”
Willer plans concerts with a unifying thread: “the human narrative that I use to build the line of the program,” she explained, “so that it’s not a theme that is just shared between all the pieces, but rather a journey from one piece to the next, through the early and the new.”
“Fallen,” the program for this weekend’s performances, is made up entirely of new music, including three premieres. An extended meditation on what it means to live in a fallen world, whether Paradise exists, how we strive for it, and whether it’s attainable in this world or some other, it begins with intimations of the eternal in the temporal in Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Aus den Visionen der Hildegard von Bingen.”
A similar theme — that Paradise is in our own world — appears in secular guise in Daniel Schlosberg’s “so we must make the journey around the world.” Travis Alford’s “O Fragile Human, Speak. . .” sets a portion of Hildegard’s remarkable creation narrative “Scivias,” and Sungji Hong’s “Ficus enim non florebit” asks biting questions about injustice through the words of the minor prophet Habakkuk.
The program is not just conceptually heavy — “there’s no humor in this one,” Willer joked — but also technically demanding, like many of Lorelei’s offerings. That’s part of the point, she said — to show what a professional ensemble of this kind is capable of.
“I think what we lack in the vocal world, not just in the choral world,” she said, “are groups of women that are not just singing at the highest level but really able to do whatever a composer might throw at them, and willing to take risks, and willing to live at the edge of extended techniques or extreme range — the lowest lows and the highest highs. And to do that in such a way that asks people to think differently about what an all-female vocal ensemble can sound like.”