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Women’s Voices, in Praise of God

Lorelei: Marsh Chapel’s first female ensemble in residence


Mind you, Scott Jarrett has nothing against dead white guys: witness the Bach concerto series he oversees each year as Marsh Chapel’s music director.

Still, it being the 21st century, Jarrett (CFA’99,’08) felt the chapel was missing out on two opportunities: showcasing the work of living composers and that of women, be they composers or performers.

He seized both opportunities by naming the Lorelei Ensemble Marsh’s first all-female ensemble in residence. Founded by Beth Willer (CFA’08,’16) four years ago, the group performs contemporary as well as medieval, Renaissance, and baroque music. Lorelei will present the first of this academic year’s three concerts, titled Lumen di Lumine, at Marsh Chapel on Saturday, November 19, at 8 p.m. Among the artists whose work the group will perform is Mary Montgomery Koppel (CFA’10), a College of Fine Arts lecturer and Lorelei’s (obviously living) composer in residence.

Lorelei’s eight voices also sing occasionally at the regular 11 a.m. Sunday service at Marsh Chapel. It’s a musical and spiritual symbiosis: the chapel gets its 21st-century ensemble—women performing music by living and female composers—along with the ensemble’s fan base, and Lorelei, a relative start-up (its office is in Willer’s house), gets the cred that performing at a major university affords. The ensemble, which also is in residence with the Holden Choirs at Harvard, receives no money for their appointment.

Beth Willer, Lorelei Ensemble for Women, Marsh Chapel

“Many of our singers actually sing in the Marsh Chapel choir,” says Willer, and have or are seeking BU degrees, making residency “a natural relationship. It exposes us to people who may not have otherwise found us. It’s a very naturally supportive community of what we’re doing.”

She launched Lorelei out of a sense that the repertoire for higher-pitched voices too often is written for children and younger singers rather than for adult women. Her group is “interested in expanding the repertoire for women’s voices,” she says, “whether that is commissioning a new work or finding repertoire from the earlier periods that has not been exposed or has not been recorded.” In particular, Lorelei’s By Women for Women initiative seeks out female composers who will write pieces for women’s voices, some of which may be performed at Marsh Chapel.

For his part, Jarrett needed a fresh partner after the departure of L’Académie, Marsh’s resident ensemble for the past three years. “Of the music that we do at Marsh Chapel, 90 percent of it, maybe more, is by dead people,” he notes. “The chapel choir and collegium [orchestra] are focusing this year on broadening that spectrum to include the music of living composers at least once a month.” Lorelei’s repertoire included those, and its all-woman membership additionally afforded the chance “to build relationships with what we want church to look like in the 21st century,” Jarrett says, “and to reach out to music thinkers.”

Lorelei Ensemble for Women, Marsh Chapel, Boston University

“The music of women is vastly underserved, not because of any historical-political bent. There just haven’t been that many women composers, and that’s a new genre that we’re hoping to support.”

He hopes that Lorelei’s presence will also bring more gender diversity to Marsh Chapel. “I look at our staff: Dean Robert Allan Hill, whom we adore, is a white man. I am a white man. Our senior staff is led by white men.

“What we’re interested to do, in our own way, in our neck of the woods, musically speaking, is to advocate for women making music.”

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

6 Comments on Women’s Voices, in Praise of God

  • Robin B. on 11.17.2011 at 9:08 am

    Thanks for showcasing Lorelei; their voices are beautiful and moving. Great story and video.

  • Nathan on 11.17.2011 at 2:37 pm

    The singers are good. In the selected piece, those are some very unattractive chords. Just because a composer can write dissonance doesn’t mean they should.

  • Geoffrey Wilson on 11.18.2011 at 9:50 pm

    Just returned from listening to the Lorelei Ensemble’s debut at the First church in Wenham. Stunning voices; beautiful, complex harmonies; and diverse range of songs. Their medieval songs (first half) were ethereal; their modern songs (second half), interesting and strange. It was a rare pleasure to be able listen to such talented singers out here in the boondocks. Thank-you, one and all. And do cut that CD soon, please.

    • Emily Culler on 11.20.2011 at 10:00 am

      Thanks, Geoffrey! So glad you could join us in Wenham for our concert on Friday! A cd is definitely in the works, and we’ve got another series coming up in January. Hope to see you there!
      Emily (Lorelei soprano)

  • Nancy Montgomery on 11.20.2011 at 9:10 am

    A Lorelei concert is always a treat. That’s a given. Last night at Marsh Chapel Lorelei provided a rich and moving musical experience. Director Beth Willer’s mastery of early musical works was apparent with her effortless description of what makes each piece work. The two new pieces were pleasingly diverse. And Marsh Chapel with its fine accoustics makes the most of the stunningly beautiful voices of these eight young women. Bravo! Job well done.

  • Doree Du Toit on 11.20.2011 at 9:44 am

    What a stunning group of singers! Such an ethereal, glorious sound. BRAVO to all of you for creating this ensemble and giving it a solid foundation for the future.

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