The Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, arches 70 feet high in its central nave. Marble pilasters, pink granite columns, and red jasper abound. St. Ignatius has presented the Sacred Music in a Sacred Space series for 30 years, featuring both large-scale masterpieces and intimate reflections. Amid standard European choral and organ music (the church houses the largest tracker organ in New York City), SMSS presents a few explorations of the modern sacred experience. Earlier this year, Imani Winds and the Harlem Quartet gave a program exploring the equality and spiritual interests of Bach and Coltrane. On Sunday, April 14, Lorelei Ensemble presented “So We Must Make the Journey.”
The afternoon concert was not remotely disgruntled despite its titular angst. Instead, Lorelei – nine independently expert women who unify a broad range of vocal repertoire through elegant and opulent singing – presented the earth and human beings as having parallel and entwined sacred journeys. The first half of the program, “Briddes World (Bird’s World),” focused on the natural realm, and birds were recurring icons of freedom and hope.
The opening piece, “The Hour of the Doves” by John Luther Adams, in which ensemble members stationed throughout the nave sang an imitative bird counterpoint, both introduced the building’s resonance and glorified the natural world. Medieval song texts “Mirie It Is While Sumer Ilast (Merry It Is While Summer Lasts),” “Byrd One Brere (Bird on a Briar),” “Quant Le Russinol Se Cesse (When the Nightingale Ceases),” and “Sumer Is Icumen In (Summer Has Arrived)” referenced cuckoos, nightingales, and birdsong as harbingers of joy and new life.
Beth Willer, Lorelei’s founder and artistic director, leads the group in its mission to advance and elevate women’s vocal ensembles and enrich their repertoire. This program was a robust and academically rigorous offering, ranging from 9th-century Byzantine chant to recently commissioned minimalism. The large portion of the program that featured medieval English songs was taken primarily from Helen Deeming’s Songs in British Sources, c.1150-1300 (Musica Britannica 95), which compiles original text and notation. Willer consulted directly with Deeming and various experts of medieval English language to determine pronunciation for the 13th-century dialect.
Willer’s dedication to expansive repertoire afforded a fresh and fanciful connection to the past, and suggested an avenue for contemporary collaboration between the arts and sciences. While birds have provided humans with enduring poetic inspiration, organized scientific study of birdsong is a modern phenomenon after the emergence of recording technology in the mid-20th century. Perhaps the Boston-based Lorelei can lead a new relationship with this natural music, and inspire audiences as we grapple with preserving our habitat.
The church acoustics amplified Lorelei’s lavish singing, but also hampered its articulation and timbral variety. Much of the text was indistinguishable even with program notes, and it was unfortunate that the choral resonance and compositional diversity were disconnected delights. The ensemble varied its sound by featuring different vocal pairings, and briefly introduced light instrumentation including a late-19th-century Pajot hurdy gurdy and mandolin, but the instrumentation was too brief to substantially vary the program.
Although the second half of “So We Must Make the Journey” was explicitly dedicated to confronting human loss and weakness – not the least of which is watching sacred nature suffer – the ensemble’s careful curation and impeccable elegance infused the entire program with human courage. The afternoon ended with David Lang’s interpretation of Genesis 1, “Evening Morning Day,” and a brief sacred text that perhaps summarized Lorelei Ensemble’s offering. We live in real time, we participate in our world, and we must even save it: “Salvation is created in the midst of the earth, O God. Alleluia (Psalm 74:12).”
Lana Norris is a music journalist and collaborative pianist with a background in sacred music and religious studies. She brings an interest in diplomacy to her dedication to contemporary concert music.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.