With a program of contemporary music centered on themes of injustice, immigration, and the audacity to envision a better world, Lorelei Ensemble made witnesses of us all Saturday night at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. The ensemble’s shimmering and pure blend of voices carried the music and the messages within straight to the heart.
The world premiere of James Kallembach’s “Antigone: The Writings of Sophie Scholl and The White Rose Movement” took up the concert’s first half. A heavenly wordless prelude slid into darkness with dissonant chords and angular attacks from a cello quartet, before the texts took over. Excerpts from the ancient Greek tragedy of martyrdom were intercut with the writings of a young woman who stood against the Nazis and was killed for it, and the similarities were such that frequently it was not obvious without looking at the program which excerpt was from where.
With director Beth Willer’s assertive and fluid conducting, the ensemble’s singing was passionate without being overwrought, its diction extraordinary but difficult to understand without the libretto in such a resonant space. Surtitles would have been useful so as to give full attention to these singers. Mezzo Christina English and soprano Sarah Brailey had excellent solo turns as Antigone’s complicit sister Ismene and the tyrant king Creon, but whenever Antigone or Sophie’s words appeared, they were never sung by a soloist. They were all of them, just like they are all of us.
Abbie Betinis’s “From Behind the Caravan; Songs of Hafez” began with a joyful dervish dance and reached its emotional apex with a shattering, incandescent lamentation of exile. That theme continued with Joshua Shank’s plaintive folk ballad adaptation “Saro,” with its clear, flowing solo by Margot Rood, and the world premiere of Mary Montgomery Koppel’s haunting and hopeful “Mother of Exiles.” Adam Jacob Simon’s “Joys Above His Power,” a Lorelei commission, was a full-throated and exhilarating modern take on old shapenote hymns, juxtaposed with the more delicate frame of Moira Smiley’s “Utopia”
Finally came the world premiere of Shawn Kirchner’s “Rose/Riddle/Rainbow,” another commission. It was a fine piece, though a tad uneven, with what felt like directionless clouds of chords shrouding moments of sweetness and urgency. The three movements were a sweet lullaby, a less memorable pastiche, and an urgent, uplifting finale. A Pride pin shone from the collar of powerful contralto Emily Marvosh, whose solo anchored “I’ve Got a Rainbow.” The unison refrains of a work song branched into flawlessly tuned wide chords, which bloomed in the air for prolonged moments before vanishing.
At Marsh Chapel, Boston University, Saturday
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.