“The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Amazing Grace,” “The Song of Hiawatha,” and Roman historian Tacitus all featured in Lorelei Ensemble’s ambitious sixth-season opener — which included a quartet of commissioned world premieres — this past weekend at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. The title of the program performed by this all-women vocal octet, “Reconstructed: The New Americana,” might have sounded generic, but the pieces themselves were sharply differentiated. Lorelei sang in a semi-circle, conducted in the premieres by artistic director Beth Willer, and the superb performances communicated a sense of joy.
The program was also imaginatively constructed. The premieres were interspersed with American shape-note hymn tunes, some by 18th-century composer William Billings, some by contemporary young Americans: Dana Maiben, Adam Jacob Simon, Moira Smiley. Interludes between vocal selections were provided by flutist Ashley Addington and violinist Shaw Pong Liú, who, playing from various locations in the chapel, riffed on the familiar melodies. It all made for a fulfilling 80 minutes, especially in the contrast between Billings’s searing polyphony and the more ambivalent modern harmonies.
The most substantial of the premieres was Joshua Bornfield’s five-movement “Reconstruction,” which he described as a kind of American Mass, drawing on material from the “Sacred Harp” songbook, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Appalachian folk tradition, and adding some gospel touches. In the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” section, different American centuries seemed to be singing all at the same time. “Farewell” allowed the performers to ring innumerable changes on the title word.
Joshua Shank’s “Saro” turned the English folk ballad “Pretty Saro” (memorably covered by Bob Dylan) into the story of a man who’s not rich enough to marry the girl he loves. Scott Ordway’s inspiration for “North Woods” was the northern wilderness of Maine, but for his text he adapted Tacitus’s description of the north of England and Germany. The result was an American response to Sibelius’s “Tapiola,” the music conjuring twinkling stars, howling winds, and the unyielding dark green of fir trees. And for “Nokomis’ Fall,” Mary Montgomery Koppel went to that part of Longfellow’s poem where Hiawatha’s grandmother, daughter of the moon Nokomis, falls from the sky. Accompanied by Addington on bass flute, the mostly pentatonic piece created its own hypnotic variations on Longfellow’s trochaic tetrameter.