Take a twice-Grammy-nominated conductorless string orchestra. Pair it with a women’s vocal ensemble specializing in medieval and modern repertoire, acclaimed for its harmonic and dramatic acuity. It sounds good on paper, and it sounded even better on stage; Friday evening at Jordan Hall, local luminaries A Far Cry and Lorelei Ensemble embarked on a journey that culminated in the world premiere of Kareem Roustom’s “Hurry to the Light,” a choral cycle exploring women of Homer’s “Odyssey” co-commissioned by both ensembles.
The program was a co-curation of A Far Cry violist Sarah Darling and Lorelei artistic director Beth Willer. With the “Odyssey” as its guide, the program fixated on both longing for home and the songs of sirens, those supposedly irresistible feminine spirits who have inspired legends (“Lorelei” itself is a German cousin to the siren) and artists in myriad mediums through the centuries.
Telemann’s “Wassermusik” movement “Tempest: The Stormy Aeolus,” a lashing gale of gutsy Baroque choppiness, sounded like it was made to preface the sinuous, sinister “O Sailor” from Kate Soper’s three-woman vocal piece “Here Be Sirens”; never mind that the pieces were composed nearly 300 years apart. Lorelei then delivered the world premiere of “I long and seek after” from Jessica Meyer’s forthcoming song cycle. With the piece using just one fragment of Sappho’s poetry, each syllable was explored in variations of scintillating color.
Adam Simon’s arrangement of the traditional tune “Sinner Man,” in world premiere, sounded tentative next to Jonathan Woody’s cosmic arrangement of “Wayfaring Stranger” and Caroline Shaw’s reimagining of “I’ll Fly Away,” which sounded like it could have been some singing family’s own obscure tune for the hymn. It’s possible the new piece needs more breaking in.
If that also means one gets to hear Roustom’s “Hurry to the Light” again, so much the better. The “Odyssey” has made its home in song since ancient Greece, and it was wonderful to hear Emily Wilson’s recent translation given voice that way. The consistent ebb and flow of its iambic pentameter compelled the rhythms and cadences.
Episodes from the epic came to vivid life. Gnashing violins underscored the description of Scylla while the low strings’ whine evoked Charybdis; Penelope’s loneliness was illustrated with claustrophobic orchestration; Odysseus’s mother appeared in a strongly rhythmic, almost ritual chant and open harmonies. Even considering both ensembles’ stellar track records, it was an amazing feat that everyone navigated those waters sans conductor.
A FAR CRY AND LORELEI ENSEMBLEzoe.email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.