Singer and conductor Beth Willer phones from her home in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, a midsize town on the Susquehanna River where she seves as director of choral activities at Bucknell University. It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive to the nearest major city, but travel doesn’t faze her, she explains. Growing up in the open country of South Dakota and Wyoming, two hours one way for a day trip was normal. When working with Lorelei Ensemble, the nine-voice treble ensemble she founded more than ten years ago, she drives or flies to Boston, which she considers her second home.
Lorelei programs pull from the early and contemporary repertoires. Its 5 Boroughs Music Festival concert on February 9 – part of a brief tour that also will include performances at Yale University (Feb. 11), Michigan’s Hillsdale College (Feb. 15), and Chamber Music Columbus (Feb. 17) – focuses on themes of impermanence and tradition, with pieces drawing on sources ranging from medieval codexes, Japanese waka poetry about the constantly shifting moon, and the Talmud. “All of this connects to the fluidity of mankind, and our constant movement across land, and how that’s shaping us,” Willer explained. “That’s particularly relevant to us now as migration seems to be an increasing phenomenon, though obviously it’s been our nature for a long time.”
The ensemble frequently commissions, and consistently strives to push the boundaries of music for treble choir. In a scene almost exclusively populated with mixed or men’s ensembles at the top level, Lorelei stands out not just in its repertoire, but in its excellence.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Did you grow up singing in choirs?
BETH WILLER: Yeah, I’ve been singing in choirs as long as I can remember. I’m a Lutheran, so a lot of good hymn singing with my family and singing in church choirs, singing in school choirs, through college, where I did a music ed degree. And then I ended up doing conducting degrees in Boston, which is what brought me there, to Boston University. I’ve been singing all along.
Were any of those choirs all-female?
The story’s kind of funny. Growing up, I really detested all-female choirs because I was sure that it was the lesser choir, and I really didn’t think it was fair that the men got to move directly up to the advanced choir and I had to hang out in the women’s’ choir for my first year of high school. Actually, in high school, I convinced my high school choir director to make the freshman choir a mixed choir, and he did it. So, crisis averted. I never sang in a women’s choir in high school.
I got to Luther College in Iowa, and every freshman either sang in the women’s choir or the men’s choir. So I auditioned for the women’s choir with Sandra Peter, and she blew me away with one of the most incredible choral experiences I had ever had. I only sang with her for one year, but I was sold on singing with all treble voices from that point on.
I came out of that, I was a choir director, and I had a freshman women’s choir at the high school I was at, and it was my favorite group that I was leading. Three years later, I went on to my masters, and the first group I was assigned to conduct was the women’s choir of Boston University. It was at that point that I really started to dig into repertoire for women’s voices, and just to realize how there are great works, but how neglected that part of the repertoire has been over the centuries. It was not nearly as deep of a pot to choose from when you’re programming.
About a year later, I had an idea to start a group that would elevate work of the women’s chorus to a higher level, and doing that through commissioning and doing whatever early work could be performed by women’s voices, through transposition or whatever alteration would be deemed appropriate by the performance practice. That’s sort of, in a nutshell, how I got to here from there.
It’s interesting that you mention that nobody wanted to be in the women’s choir. I’ve also been a choral singer for most of my life. And just like you said, the best women got into the mixed choir in high school, and the women’s choir was treated kind of as second-class citizens.
And that’s the experience of so many young women, that the women’s choir is the leftover choir, even if it’s not intended to be that. What Lorelei set out to do is first and foremost redefine what a person comes to expect from an experience singing with all treble voices, and to really think about how unique that experience is and what the breadth of sounds are that we can make. Over the centuries, there’s been a prescribed sound for treble voices in choral settings, often resulting in incredible art, but there’s also a breadth of vocal color and expressivity that we have yet to fully explore.
For a length of time, the lead treble choirs had boys instead of women, and so the sound that shaped a lot of the repertoire was not the sound of a mature female voice but rather the sound of a really well trained boy. So, we are slowly working through commissioning and vocal modeling in our performance, to show how absolutely dynamic this instrument is that we have, especially at this point in our careers as 30-something women. What you can do with that instrument is so far beyond what the average piece for treble voices asks. That’s the work that we’re doing, and the work that many choruses are doing.
If you had to say what the average piece for treble voices asks, what would that be?
Most commonly – and this is not something that I find repulsive, it’s just one way – it asks for a pure sound. Usually without vibrato, often textless. You think of works with orchestra where there would be a treble or a children’s chorus, that serves as this heavenly transparent ooh and aah.
Like in “Neptune,” from The Planets.
Yeah. And there’s something about a lot of the repertoire that is as if the voices are sort of untouchable: the voices of angels, or the voices of the pure virgin. And there’s something very otherworldly about those voices. Stereotypically, I guess women are asked to sing about flowers and love, but we sing a lot about those things. It’s not just women.
But if you look at the repertoire from the 19th century, when women’s choruses were really starting to become a thing, at least on the amateur level – that repertoire has a very specific subject matter, and usually it’s not a text that has as much depth or weight as that which might be set for a mixed chorus. And there are similar problems with music that might be set specifically for mens’ voices. I think these gendered choirs get stuck sort of role playing, driving specific gender roles that at the time of that composition were accepted by the general public. Of course, there are exceptions, but that’s sort of what we’re working to move beyond.
Do you think the solution is to get more pieces written for women’s voices that aren’t about flowers and love?
I think the solution is to have more pieces written, certainly, and I don’t think it’s about not writing about flowers and love, honestly. There are reasons we sing about those things. But it’s to encourage ourselves to create work, to perform works that are of deeper significance to the whole of humanity and not to a specific gender role.
I have particularly avoided programming pieces that are sort of about being women. It’s not that I don’t think that can be great art, and of course, that would be a story that we could tell well. But what I’m really most interested in doing is making really good art and doing it with all women, and seeing what borders and boundaries we can push with the fact that we are who we are, doing this work.
We did a short oratorio last year by James Kallembach…
I saw it at Marsh Chapel.
So Antigone and [German student and anti-Nazi activist] Sophie Scholl are these two characters that we were paralleling, and of course we didn’t choose that because they were women, but that’s a story we could tell well because of who we are. But also, we had a woman singing the role of Creon—so a bit of gender bending in that, just to sort of think about what we’re capable of delivering in terms of character and story.
Antigone and Sophie Scholl, those are stories that carry significant weight for all of humanity… stories that could particularly be told well by this ensemble, because of who we are.
I was at that concert, and I’d say that having a woman sing the role of Creon… it felt like, “This is a group of people, who happen to be women, coming together years afterwards to tell these stories and remember these people,” rather than the story being acted out right in front of you.
And for centuries, women in music have not told all stories. We’ve told specific stories. I think that’s something that we’re challenging with our commissioning.
Most of the Lorelei programs are all contemporary, or a mix of medieval and renaissance music and contemporary music. What draws you to these two repertoires?
I founded the group to do both those things. I think at this point we do 60 to 70 percent new, because there’s simply not as much early that works for us. I’m drawn to both of these repertoires because whether you’re working with a living composer or working with a manuscript, that leaves more to the artist to decide. The living composer, or the scholarship and the primary source and the manuscript: those are the authorities. There’s a certain point in these repertoires, particularly medieval more than the Renaissance, where these answers aren’t there and you have to decide how to perform this, or how is it that we feel this music will be best received.
The other beauty of early music is I know there was flexibility about how these pieces were performed. While we know that the quadrupla of Perotin were never performed by women, they would have been performed in the key that worked best for the singers they had. If I believe and my ensemble believes that it’s a valid artistic product that we want to put out there in the world, we can do that. It’s harder to do that with something from a later period and really feel like we’re doing what’s best for the piece.
Of course, we’ve come to believe early music should sound like X, but there are really amazing ensembles out there who are asking questions about that. Our ideas about how this music should be sung are often modern ideas. The further back you go, the less specific expectations there are for interpretation, and I think that’s really invigorating as a performer.
There’s been quite a bit of media attention around the gender disparity in conductors, especially in the orchestra world. You’ve got people like Mariss Jansons saying that women conductors “aren’t his cup of tea.” I’m wondering if you had a different experience in the choral conducting world, or if it was the same.
It’s definitely an issue in my world as well. It’s probably less of an issue than it is in the orchestra world. But there are very few women that have been the director of choral activities at a very large, high profile institution. There are very few women leading professional vocal ensembles. So there is a disparity there. I think I was very fortunate; I don’t know if it was because I was isolated in the Great Plains, where there are far less people, so women maybe get more equal opportunity because they need us even more. But I really grew up believing that it was not somehow limiting to me that I was a woman and pursuing a career in conducting.
It wasn’t until much later in my masters or my doctorate that I started to see, especially as I got into orchestral conducting as well, that there were some barriers and stereotypes, and different expectations of me when I stood on a podium. And that, of course, depends on the ensemble, and depends on the culture of the place, and it depends on the quality of my own work.
Perhaps if I was a man doing the same thing, I would have made it further by now. I don’t know. But I feel like the most productive thing to do as a woman in my field is to do my absolute best work, and to do it while not denying my femininity—and to let that be a part of what I do. It doesn’t have to be positive or negative. I do think my gender is relevant to the work that I do—my body is my instrument, after all. That might be controversial to some readers, but I stand by that. I think there is something to gender as part of my identity as a musician, and then it’s our job to let that not be a limiting factor.
Do music and politics mix for you?
I think they must at least move closer together. I think there’s a fine line between opportunistic programming and taking advantage of a political situation, and creating art that draws on contemporary perspective, but as an artist I think it’s our responsibility to comment on our history, and perhaps our present social/cultural existence, in a way that is meaningful to our audience.
Maybe not politics, as much, but I consider art perhaps the most important form of social commentary, side by side with journalism. We should have the freedom to say what needs to be said. And so it’s very sensitive, and I think it’s really important that any artistic creation or program that does comment on politics and society needs to be incredibly thoughtful. When that’s done well, I think we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing as artists.
5 Boroughs Music Festival presents Lorelei Ensemble at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields on Feb. 9 at 7:30pm; 5bmf.org
Zoë Madonna is a writer based in Boston and the winner of the 2014 Rubin Prize in Music Criticism. Currently, she is on staff as a multi-genre music writer at the Boston Globe. She has also written for VAN Magazine, I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, Early Music America Magazine, and Q2 Music. When not writing, she can be found browsing Bandcamp, contra dancing, and playing the accordion.