by Michael Caruso

The Pennsylvania Girlchoir, based at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, presented the Lorelei Ensemble in concert Saturday, April 22, at the church. One of the few all-female professional choirs in America, the Lorelei Ensemble sang a program that ranged from late Medieval Spain to scores composed within the past few years. Throughout the repertoire, the choir sang with consummate technical skill and compelling expressive artistry.

On this, my first encounter, the Lorelei Ensemble struck me as a marvelous combination of Anonymous 4, Chanticleer and Philadelphia’s own The Crossing. Its singing recalls the clarity of timbre in the older repertoire of the acclaimed female quartet, Anonymous 4; it references the tight ensemble of the all-male Chanticleer, especially in renditions of traditional spirituals and revival hymns; and it commissions new music by American composers just as Donald Nally and The Crossing have done from their inception as a chorus.

In “Portum in ultimo” (“Give us refuge at the last”) from the northern Spanish “Codex Calistimus” (1160-1173), the Lorelei’s resemblance to Anonymous 4 was at its most compelling. Balance and tuning between the eight voices were exquisitely maintained so that the medieval organum of parallel vocal lines rising and falling projected the intensity of the Latin text, pleading for mercy and salvation.

The overall choral sound is quite different from that offered by a choir of men & boys of, say, either the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral or the Anglican Westminster Abbey in London. The tone of the former is decidedly tart and Gallic while that of the latter is transparent and angelic. It’s not like that of the mixed male-and-female Tallis Scholars, either, which is powerfully stratospheric. Rather, the Lorelei Ensemble’s characteristic sound in the older repertoire was securely placed and lyrically shaped.

Joshua Bornfield’s “Reconstructed” is a series of choral pieces, commissioned by the Lorelei Ensemble in 2014, that uses traditional tunes and texts at its foundation and then recasts them in the harmonic idioms of contemporary American music. It’s a technique that has enabled many contemporary composers to maintain that critical connection with their public while at the same time giving them the freedom to express their concepts in as original a language as possible without preventing audience accessibility. In Bornfield’s case, the technique worked beautifully. In the three movements of “Reconstructed” the Lorelei Ensemble sang Saturday evening before a small but enthusiastic audience, the tunes upon which the scores were based were readily discernible within the context of striking originality.

In these works the Lorelei’s singing reminded me of performances I’ve heard in concert and on CDs of Chanticleer singing this same repertoire. With the Lorelei Ensemble, however, I never detected that disquieting quality of condescension that often afflicts Chanticleer’s interpretations. The Lorelei sang this music with a deep respect for its historic references and a profound appreciation for its modern incarnation.

For me, however, the Lorelei was heard at its best in three sections from David Lang’s “love fail,” and here the singing most resembled that of The Crossing. This is probably because Lang is one of Nally’s favorite composers, and I’ve heard his choir perform Lang’s music frequently at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church. Lang’s austere harmonies, high tessitura and dramatic pauses always convey not just the external denotation of the poetry but also the internal connotation of the words. He opens up their inner meanings through their very sounds.

The Lorelei Ensemble sang this music with technical integrity and interpretive intensity.

RECORDING SESSION

When choral conductor Timothy McDonnell contacted me with a question regarding a future recording session, I was keen to hear the particulars. McDonnell, originally from Northeast Philadelphia and then Ardmore on the Main Line, was looking for a local venue in which to record a program of Portuguese and Spanish sacred choral music from the 1600s. The performances would feature no more than a dozen singers.

In a “Chestnut Hill flash,” I had the answer: the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. McDonnell got in touch with the parish’s music director, Erik Meyer. The sessions took place the Saturday and Monday before and after Palm Sunday.

McDonnell explained, “The recording, which will be called ‘I heard a voice from heaven…’ after the title track ‘Audivi vocem de caelo’ by Duarte Lobo (1565-1646), is being sponsored by the Smooth Shone Foundation. It’s a cultural foundation that supports projects to promote the Roman Catholic artistic tradition. The planned release is May 13. McDonnell is the director of graduate choral activities at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

“The recording features scores by Portuguese and Spanish composers whose works feature prominently in the musical history of Portugal,” he continued. “The reason behind the project is the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Fatima (Portugal) apparitions.”

May 13, 1917, is the date of the first of a series of apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to three young Portuguese children in Fatima. In these visions, the mother of Jesus presented the children with three premonitions of events to take place in the coming years. The first of these three “Secrets of Fatima” was a vision of Hell. The second encouraged the “conversion of Russia” following the end of World War I and perhaps even warned of World War II if that didn’t happen.

The “third secret of Fatima” remains the most controversial. The intention was that, after remaining secret, it be made public in 1960, when Saint John XXIII was the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. Reportedly when the Pope read it, he decided not to release it to the general public. In the wake of the liberal Second Vatican Council, conservatives and traditionalists suggested that the “third secret of Fatima” was rumored to be a warning against a council that would lead the Church away from orthodoxy. Two decades after the attempted assassination of the popular but conservative Pope Saint John Paul II in 1981, the Vatican said that the “third secret” referred to that attack on the Pope. John Paul II, himself, said that he believed that his life had been spared by the direct intervention of the Virgin Mary.

“The music is interesting,” McDonnell explained, “for its stylistic conservation of the 16th century idiom despite the fact that this polyphony mostly dates from the 17th century. The Iberian polyphonic composers are noted for their conservatism in the ecclesiastical forms. Nevertheless, we can hear several styles in this music, for instance the eclectic ‘Salve Regina’ by Diogo Dias Melgas. This work is consciously redolent of Renaissance flavors, yet it can’t help but betray a few moments of Baroque exuberance.”

Other works include Estevao Lopes Morago’s “O Magnum Mysterium” and “Gaudete cum laetitia,” Francesco Guererro’s “Dulcissima Maria,” Duarte Lobo’s “Magnificat,” Juan Esquivel’s “Ave Maria” and Manuel Cardoso’s “Turbae quae praecedebant” and “Accepit ergo Jesus panes.”

I sat in on the Monday session and was glad I had made the suggestion of St. Martin’s Church as the site for the recording. Surrounded by stone and wood, the vocalists’ singing effortlessly conjured up images of royal chapels in Spain and Portugal at the very time these European maritime powers were establishing their far-flung empires in the Americas.

MOZART ‘DOUBLE BILL’

Both Opera Philadelphia and the Academy of Vocal Arts will open productions of Mozart operas this weekend. Opera Philadelphia presents “The Marriage of Figaro” in the Academy of Music starting Friday at 8 p.m., April 28; AVA opens “The Magic Flute” in its Warden Theater Saturday at 7:30 p.m., April 29. Visit www.operaphila.org for the former and www.avaopera.org for the latter.

Contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net

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