Lorelei Ensemble Delivers Harmonic Intensity in Five Works about Earth’s Resilience and Fragility

Lorelei Ensemble (Courtesy of Lorelei Ensemble)


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The Boston-based Lorelei Ensemble performed an evening of vocal work, Look Up, in two shows at the Yale Schwarzman Center on March 7, including a stunning commission by Yale School of Music graduate Christopher Cerrone, Beaufort Scales

The evening, led by Artistic Director Beth Willer, moved seamlessly through four different composers’ compositions about the firmament: wind, sky, stars. Collectively it meditated on Earth’s resilience and fragility in a time of accelerating climate change — through voices of an all-women ensemble dedicated to shifting the landscape for women in music.  

The concert was presented in partnership with the Yale Glee Club at The Dome, located on the highest floor of the recently renovated Yale Schwarzman Center. Ascending to the top of the early 1900’s Beaux-Arts building, an audience “looks up” in the space itself — the windowed apex has a view straight into the sky, like an observatory. This extraordinary space, perched across the eves from the historic dining Commons, once housed Yale’s yearbook offices. Now renovated with a sprung dance floor and lighting installation, it has been transformed into a venue for cutting-edge performance.

Lorelei’s program was grounded in Cerrone’s thirty-five-minute Beaufort Scales and its fascinating libretto: 12 steps measuring wind intensity at sea, created in 1805 by British Navy hydrographer Sir Francie Beaufort and still in use today.

These scientific observations read like poetry. For instance, in Step 0, the scales register “Sea Like a Mirror” and “Smoke Rises Vertically.”  At the end of the scale, in Step 12, there are “Exceptionally High Waves, Sea Completely White With Driving Spray” and “Devastation.” The words recall Biblical narrative — in Step 7, the “Sea Heaps Up,” a line from Exodus. Cerrone draws in other Biblical references along with ocean-exploring writers like Herman Melville and Ann Carson. Commissioned and premiered in November at MASS MoCA, Beaufort Scales have been recorded by Lorelei Ensemble for the Cold Blue Label, with a May 17th release.

In live performance, it’s a sonic, electronic, and visual experience, with video installation of slow rolling waves of increasing magnitude by Hannah Wasileski, and lighting by Yuki Link.

As Cerrone notes, Beaufort Scales is “pure drama, just escalation all the time” with ever-increasing sonic and harmonic intensity. The nine women’s voices begin calmly, but dissonance and overlapping accumulate over time, with voices crashing against each other at the end. 

Riding the eye of this storm, Lorelei Ensemble gives a calm, rigorous performance. The singers stand poised in a semi-circular cluster at microphones and music stands, with focused attention on the lyrically precise conducting of Willer. Above them, text and video installation wrapped around on the circular walls of the Dome. The other pieces in Look Up, including composers Meredith Monk, Molly Herron and Elijah Daniel Smith, are full of edgy harmonic counterpoint and dissonance flawlessly executed. 

Meredith Monk’s opening piece “Other Worlds Revealed” placed the singers in a line along the aisle of the audience with hands on one others’ shoulders, lightly tapping while toning. In another of Monk’s works from her opera ATLAS, “Earth Seen from Above,” the singers bobbed like graceful egrets across the Dome’s space. These movement moments were welcome releases in an otherwise taut program. 

Artistic Director Willer notes that it is a particularly intense program for the performers. “There’ s a lot of heavy subject matter. And then just the continuous flow of the final piece, which is about 35 minutes: there isn’t really a moment of letting down, for the performers or for myself. I’m literally moving my arms for 35 minutes. And the entire work is dependent on precise rhythmic coordination — syncing of video, electronics sound, text — from all nine of us. The slightest slip in one direction or another could really set that off. So we are all in the zone for forty minutes straight.”  

Willer founded Lorelei Ensemble in 2007 after much experience directing women’s voices.

“I was acutely aware that the repertory was lacking — not in quality but certainly in quantity. There was a need for that repertoire to be deeper, to have more significant cultural meaning, for there to be more works that stretched a women’s vocal ensemble to be more virtuosic. That initially started with the juxtaposition of the very early and the very new.” 

Lorelei Ensemble has since commissioned sixty-five new works, with a recent shift towards longer pieces. Cerrone’s half-evening Beaufort Scales was written during the COVID pandemic, finally reaching a workshop with the Ensemble in 2023. In assimilating a complex, mathematical composition for nine voices, plus electronic sound, text, and video, Willer notes about the group of singers, “We now have lived with this enough that it feels in us.”

Editor’s note: The headline has been updated to reflect that there were five works in the show, not four as previously stated.