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Lorelei Ensemble’s Christmas program mixes old carols with premieres

Marsh Chapel at Boston University was the setting Friday for a performance by the women’s vocal group Lorelei Ensemble.
Marsh Chapel at Boston University was the setting Friday for a performance by the women’s vocal group Lorelei Ensemble.(Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)

Gratia plena," Gabriel called Mary: full of grace. Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Christmas creche's sole female presence, was the subject of Lorelei Ensemble's Friday concert, and the result was suffused with that divine compliment and the quality of veneration it inspired: serenely pure, sweetly distant, and ineluctably graceful.

The repertoire swung between very old and very new. Refined, precise singing (and Marsh Chapel's resonant reverberation) warmed up austere medieval chants, arranged as little dramas of invitation: two or three soloists preaching the lesson, the larger ensemble (seven to nine voices, depending on the piece) joining for a concluding response. But the archaic airs also informed the contemporary works.

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A tangy presentation of the plainsong "Veni, veni emmanuel," soprano Sonja Tengblad and alto Emily Marvosh gliding through and glancing off a sustained drone, foreshadowed Paul Chihara's "Magnificat," its chanted lines leavened into tall, teeming harmonies. The 13th-century master Pérotin's compulsive expression — especially his "Dum sigillum summi patris," Tengblad and Marvosh, then soprano Corinne Byrne and mezzo-soprano Clare McNamara, then the whole extending the text's divine kiss into protracted, puckered-lip "ooh" vowels — distantly mirrored Bryan Christian's "Of a rose synge we" (a premiere), which factorized its medieval text into dense, dissonant lambency.

Both Andrew Smith's "Ioseph fili David" and Carson Cooman's "Nowel: Owt of your slepe aryse" (another premiere) beguilingly modernized older, piquantly modal styles — exemplified in the sturdy-yet-slippery harmonies of "Alleluya: a nywe werk," or the great 14th-century carol "Ther is no rose of swych vertu" (the latter sung with playful ease by soprano Jessica Petrus, mezzo-soprano Christina English, and alto Stephanie Kacoyanis).

Timothy Takach's "There is no rose of such virtue" (another premiere) adapted that text into a ruminative then-and-now colloquy, with offstage voices (Tengblad and Anna Ward) using the carol's Latin refrains to seed motives that the rest explored and exploited. The remaining premiere, Adam Jacob Simon's "Lullaby," took modal influence in a different direction, the crack between major and minor opened out into its own harmonic landscape, with the fabled star of Bethlehem a vaulting melodic beacon.

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But it was all of a piece, director Beth Willer (assisted by Cooman's resourceful, improvised organ interludes) stringing the program into a continuous, unhurried rite. The performance — exact, smooth, stylish almost to the point of stylization — mirrored the course of Marian devotion, the cumulative emphasis on her virginity rendering her immaculate but remote. The virtuous rose has sometimes become a hot house flower.

Lorelei Ensemble

Beth Willer, artistic director. "Of Such Virtue." At Marsh Chapel, Boston University, Friday.


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.