Lorelei Sings Wolfe’s “Her Story” with the Boston Symphony
Saturday, March 18, 2023
Encore broadcast on Monday, March 27
In the third program of “Voices of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope,” the women’s vocal ensemble joins the BSO in composer Julia Wolfe’s commemoration of the fight for women’s suffrage, and Giancarlo Guerrero conducts Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, with soprano Aleksandra Kurzak.
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
Aleksandra Kurzak, soprano
Lorelei Ensemble (Beth Willer, Artistic Director)
Henryk GÓRECKI Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
Julia WOLFE Her Story, for vocal ensemble and orchestra
This concert is no longer available on demand.
To hear an interview with Beth Willer, founder and Artistic Director of Lorelei Ensemble, listen with the audio player above, and read the transcript below.
To hear an interview with Giancarlo Guerrero, listen with the player below and read the transcript in the tab below.
Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Giancarlo Guerrero, who is back with the Boston Symphony for a really significant concert. Giancarlo, thanks for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate it.
Giancarlo Guerrero Always a pleasure and a great joy to be back working the fabulous Boston Symphony.
Brian McCreath Her Story has made such a splash, and rightfully so. It's an incredibly powerful piece of music that you had the honor of introducing to the world as conductor. But actually, I want to ask you first about the beginning of this concert, Her Story, in the various places that it has been performed and will be performed. It's one of those pieces that whatever you do on the concert with that piece must also mean something. And I'm curious about the choice of Górecki's Symphony No. 3 to begin this concert, and set the sort of like scene for our audience, and how you came to that decision.
Giancarlo Guerrero Her Story, of course, is about the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the women's right to vote, which 2020 was the centennial and COVID and the pandemic got in the middle of that. So we had to postpone it until 2022 in September when we premiered the piece in Nashville. And what do you put next to it? I mean, that is a big question to me is a piece that not only the subject matter itself, but is such a powerful piece, with all sorts of theatrics with Lorelei Ensemble, a lot of movements, basically telling you the story that this ratification of this amendment was quite complicated. And you would expect and historically, it's almost a miracle that it actually took place. In any case, I wanted to find a way to celebrate women. And this is a piece that does that.
Brave women, starting with Abigail Adams, 130 years before the ratification. Basically chastising her husband and telling him that in the Constitutional Convention he should not forget the women when they are signed, coming up with all these rights for everybody, don't forget the women, because you do not want to make them angry. You know, Abigail Adams in so many ways, being 200 years ahead of her time. I have been music director in Poland [of the Wrocław Philharmonic] now for about eight years, and one of the greatest gifts that I have gotten, being in that beautiful country is learning all this incredible repertoire. By Szymanowski, Górecki, Penderecki.
And this third symphony of Górecki has been an absolute favorite of mine, and the entire piece is about women and mothers particularly, and the first movement of the Virgin Mary speaking to Jesus Christ on the cross, the second movement about a young girl who was imprisoned during World War Two by the Gestapo and managed somehow to survive, actually, but wrote this prayer in one of the cells in a place called "the palace" in Zakopane in Poland. And in the last movement, a mother looking for her son has been killed in the uprisings of Silesian in the 1920s. So I felt this whole combination of powerful women basically changing the world. And I thought that programmatically these two works were perfect companions. And as a father myself, of two daughters and always thinking of strong women, you know, I thought this program was a wonderful way of celebrating that. And that historically, in many ways, they are the ones leading the way.
Brian McCreath Thematically, these pieces, I hear everything you're saying about them, but it's also so rare that you have two pieces of music that make up an entire program. Both . . . well, one of them incredibly new. The other also very new in terms of, you know, music history, in terms of what the orchestral repertoire is, it's a very recent piece. How do you feel that they interact and say things to each other?
Giancarlo Guerrero Well, the Górecki is from 1977, which is relatively new. And the Górecki in many ways is probably one of the most famous pieces that has ever been written, but you may not know about just because there was almost like by accident, there was a recording that came out in 1991 with David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta and the wonderful Dawn Upshaw singing the soprano part that ended up selling over 1 million records for a classical piece of a modern composer! Even the composer himself, Górecki was very surprised by that. But there was something about the writing and the language of this music that touched a lot of people.
The piece is very repetitive, but at the same time it uses a lot of Gregorian chant-type writing. It's a piece of almost like a constant prayer. It just moves on, and there's a lot of, as I said, moments where it's about a state of mind. And I think Górecki touched on something that for human beings can be quite hypnotic. The idea that you hear something, and you need to keep hearing it, and the more you hear it, the more you want it.
Perfect example of that is Bolero, who was — which was also intended to be almost a joke in many ways, and ended up being probably the most popular piece. What is it about that repetition, particularly of the rhythm, that we cannot look away? So the Górecki, it's a piece that is so famous, I guess, in the recording world, but in performances, you don't hear a lot of it. A lot of it, because I think it's a modern piece and it's tricky to program, but I thought that this was the perfect opportunity to bring this incredible piece of music and put it where it deserves to be, in the concert hall.
And plus, of course, with the fabulous Boston Symphony, the great soprano Aleksandra Kurzak from Poland herself, and in the amazing acoustics, which almost seemed tailor-made. So to me, you're absolutely right. I mean, this is a very daring program with a relatively new piece, which is only the third performance of the Julia Wolfe, Her Story, and then one of the few performances probably in the U.S. of the Górecki. So I think for everybody who's going to be at this performance, there's going to be almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Brian McCreath I totally agree that the Górecki has this hypnotic effect that's unreal. Getting back to Her Story, tell me about your first encounter with the score. You know, Beth Willer and Julia Wolfe worked on this, forming the piece, bringing the piece to life. And I wonder where you entered the process and what your reaction was when you first encountered what it was you were being asked to do as the conductor.
Giancarlo Guerrero Bringing a piece to life for the first time, it's always such a great joy and privilege, but quite scary, to be honest. And the fact that not only includes, you know, Julia's piece, but at the same time you include the Lorelei Ensemble and Beth Willer, who have basically the big task of telling the story. And as I said, there are theatrics — there is a lot of movement on stage, and costumes, and many other things that help tell the story, something that I'm very proud of is the fact that the National Symphony was really the leading commissioner through all of this. And the reason was that historically, not many people know this, that when the 19th Amendment was ratified, it was Tennessee that got over the two-thirds needed to make the amendment a reality, which was quite a surprise in 1920 that this happened. And this took place actually at the Hermitage Hotel, which is only a few blocks from the concert hall. So this has very much historical implications for Nashville and for Tennessee that it actually happened there. You know, and as I said, this was a huge surprise. This was supposed to go on for a few more years, only a few other states had ratified it. But Tennessee, against all odds, was the one that got it over the line and made it a two-thirds majority of the states and became an amendment.
So we were the lead commissioners. And after that, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, San Francisco, National Symphony in Washington jumped on board. And I honestly, always coming at the very end, I always tell composers, listen, you have to write what is in your spirit, in your soul. Whatever you ask me to conduct, I will gladly conduct it. And the greatest compliment I can give to a composer is that when I actually get the score, if I don't reach out to them, it means that everything I need to know is in the score. And the one thing that I didn't know is that there were going to be all sorts of, if I can call them, “bells and whistles”. And it's one thing for them to try to explain it to you like, "Oh, this person is going to move here, and this person going to be wearing this . . . " it's quite another to actually see it. So it was quite remarkable. Remember that last year, we were still not quite out of COVID, and traveling was not as easy, and getting together still was . . . we were being very extra careful. So having to have production meetings was a little trickier.
But at the same moment, it was incredibly exciting and more importantly for me to have a seat at the table and watching really . . . Julia Wolfe make this dream and make this vision a reality was absolutely inspiring. And I have to say the same about Beth and Lorelei Ensemble, how much ownership they took into this, that for me, I just needed to make sure that from the orchestral point of view, just like we're doing here with the Boston Symphony, we need to provide the necessary support that they absolutely need to be able to tell the story in the proper way.
And from my own experience, when we premiered the piece, it was life-changing. Not only for the audience. I'm going to speak on behalf of my colleagues in the orchestra and for the institution — it was a life-changing event. This was a piece that was even more moving and more powerful and more relevant, I think, given what's going on in the world today, that that needs to be said. And we can go back 100 years and see how brave women, specifically, were truly able to change the world and continue doing it. So it's both exhilarating and also a big responsibility, but it's one that only music is able to tell the story in a way that we can all understand it and more importantly, appreciate it.
Brian McCreath I'm so glad you mentioned your colleagues in Nashville, because this has been on my mind. You've been there for a while as music director of the Nashville Symphony, an amazing track record. When you say that premiering new music can be scary, that comes with a long track record of premiering new music in Nashville. I've never actually been to Nashville myself, but we hear stories. There's major league sports teams moving to town. There are skyscrapers, or at least construction cranes going on all the time, and there's this vibrant orchestra there. What is it about Nashville that's happening that makes the artistic life there that you lead so rewarding? And describe what that city is, and why maybe we should be paying more attention to it?
Giancarlo Guerrero Well, right now it seems to be the "it" city. Everybody seems to be moving to Nashville. I think it's a combination of many factors, but it is a wonderful place to live that has been home now for me for about 16 years. My kids grew up there. We have a fabulous concert hall, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, a great orchestra, as you mentioned. But you have to remember that Nashville is known as Music City. That is our nickname. That's what we're known for. So from the very beginning, for me to go out into the community and try to remind them that music is important, I always get kind of like, "Well, duh, of course it is. I mean, what do you — where are you? I mean, this is Music City." I always use a joke, and I'm very proud of the fact that with the Nashville Symphony, I've won six Grammys myself. You know, we've had so many nominations, so many wins over the years that I always joke that I when I go to a restaurant, you know, I will bring Grammy with me. It's like "Well, but this is Nashville. Everybody here has a Grammy." [Brian laughs] So, again, it's very particular.
But remember that when you say Nashville, most people think of country music, of course, which of course, there's a great history of that, but that's no longer the case. It's really more American Music City. Every imaginable genre of American music is being recorded, published, performed in every way. Our studio life in Nashville is incredible because it isn't in Los Angeles or New York, it is remarkable. So I think that is one of the greatest secrets of why the orchestra is so good. Because my players have to play Brahms and Shostakovich in the morning, and then they have to go across the street and play, you know, jingles, and play rock and roll and blue grass and be — have to be very good at it. So the fact that they speak so many musical languages, and [are] so versatile is what makes them so incredibly virtuosic.
And that's very particularly Nashville, because the city is so small that you can't ignore each other. In other places, maybe the jazz world is here, the classical world is over there, and the rock and roll — no. in Nashville, we're all together, and we all know each other, and we support each other and we respect each other more importantly. So because of that, I think there has been this almost embracing by the community that they love the idea of being a part of a city that celebrates music in all of its form, but it's specifically American. Let's be honest about that. I mean, all of the genres that are being celebrated are mostly American. And I think that's where we come in. We have been championing American composers. We just happen to be doing it in our field.
And I think that has gotten a lot of great degree of not only interest but belief of relevance that the community, the orchestra, the subscribers, the donors, the volunteers feel that they want to be a part of that. And it didn't happen overnight. As you said, I mean, I've been there 16 years with the orchestra and we've built on that. All of our recordings are live. And I tell my audience, “You are part of that. You own this. These compositions are written for you.”
And remember that I always say, I'm very honest about this. My inspiration has always been the Boston Symphony. And I look back at the days particularly of Koussevitzky. What do all of the great 20th century pieces have in common? Most of them were Koussevitzky Boston Symphony Commission. There was something that the maestro with the orchestra believed that it was so important, and probably against the tide. He had to fight a lot for this. And here we are, 50, 60, 70, 100 years later, thankful, forever grateful for that vision. I want the same for Nashville.
I want people to look down 20, 30, 40 years and say, "What was going on in Nashville?" That not only the orchestra was doing this, but more importantly the community was going along with it, because right now, those great warhorses of the future are being premiered and performed as we speak in Nashville. And that is the thing that makes me so proud, because that is what . . . one of the most important parts of what we do as orchestras. We have to set the legacy.
We have to set history, because if we don't champion these composers, then it's a crime. I wish I could say that I invented the wheel, but no, this has been going on as long as music has existed. Beethoven had world premieres, and so did Mozart. It is up to us after the fact to make sure that this music does not disappear. So I take it that it is a great responsibility and a great joy to be able to do this and collaborate with these amazing composers who have become not only incredible colleagues, but great friends.
Brian McCreath Giancarlo Guerrero, it's great to have you back and great to talk with you again. Thanks for your time today.
Giancarlo Guerrero Always a privilege. Thank you.
Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Beth Willer. She's the founder and director of Lorelei Ensemble. Beth, it's so good to have you here, especially after so many BSO performances Lorelei has done. But now with Her Story, a really significant performance.
Beth Willer Thank you. Thank you for inviting me. It's fabulous to be back in Boston with Lorelei and to have a chance to bring this piece here, which I think is really one of the most exciting premieres we've been a part of.
Brian McCreath Absolutely. Lorelei has become such an ingrained part of Boston Symphony experiences by now. But let's go back to the very beginning of the ensemble. I know it was founded in 2007, but I'm interested in the series of — however you want to describe it — events, thoughts, ideas that led you to that moment to say, "You know, I'm going to found an all-women's vocal ensemble." What led you to that moment?
Beth Willer Yeah, I mean, I grew up singing in choirs and I actually, like many young women, was not super interested in singing with an all-female vocal ensemble because historically speaking or just culturally speaking, that tended to be the group that you, you know, bided your time in while you're waiting to be in the better ensemble with tenors and basses. And I actually had a really amazing experience the first year of my my collegiate work, where I worked with conductor Sandra Peter at Luther College in Iowa. And I had an amazing experience working with treble voices. And I sort of started to go down that path both professionally and just kind of in my interest of the repertoire.
And I realized pretty quickly, especially when I came to Boston and started my master's at Boston University, that that repertoire was quite limited and didn't have the depth . . . I mean, just in terms of the sheer amount of it, but also the quality of it. You know, great composers were writing for soprano/alto ensembles, but not their best work and good music. But really, you know, I would pass up anything Brahms wrote for soprano/alto ensemble to sing a Brahms motet for mixed choir any day. So I was finding that that repertoire really needed to be expanded. I had a couple of experiences working with living composers that I knew I loved doing contemporary music just in a summer program. And then I heard Trio Mediæval, who was here on BEMF, and they were —
Brian McCreath Yeah, the Boston Early Music Festival. This is a — they're from Sweden, is it or . . .?
Beth Willer They're from Norway.
Brian McCreath Norway, that's what it is, yeah.
Beth Willer And —
Brian McCreath A trio of women.
Beth Willer They're a trio of women. And they were performing, on that particular concert, music of the Notre Dame period. So a little bit of Pérotin and some other anonymous repertoire. And then they did a mass by Sungji Hong, which we have now done several times. But I had just a really eye-opening experience hearing them and hearing that combination of early and contemporary repertoire. And I remember walking away from that concert and saying, "I think I want to do that."
Brian McCreath That's fantastic. So with your initial conception, I hear you referencing needing new repertoire and a particular quality of of sound that you . . . that sounds like it was crystallized with Trio Mediæval. How has your initial vision evolved?
Beth Willer Absolutely. So, I think that like I said, I think initially I was thinking about an expansion of the repertoire, making it more complex, deeper in content, all of these things about what was on the page. I think what I've evolved to be thinking about with Lorelei is really the evolution of the female vocal aesthetic. And you know, a lot of this repertoire written for trouble voices in the past, whether it be for treble ensemble or a mixed ensemble, has been written for younger, often male voices. And so the aesthetic that we've idealized around soprano/alto sound is really not one that's been rooted in the most amazing, flexible, expansive sounds that women's voices can make.
And so, you know, in employing these outstanding contraltos or these sopranos with significant range of color, I think that what we're really aiming to do is change people's idea of what a women's vocal ensemble can sound like, and the words that we're going to sing, and the stories that we're going to tell that we all, myself included, have assumptions . . . when a certain group of musicians walks on a stage, I think we have particularly strong assumptions about gendered ensembles and what we think they should be singing. So we're thinking about maybe what they could be singing that they haven't, historically.
Brian McCreath The role of living composers in the life of Lorelei is so substantial, and it sounds like it has been from the very beginning, —
Beth Willer Yes.
Brian McCreath — maybe even more so than it was in the beginning. Describe to me, beyond that reward of expanding repertoire, and even beyond what you describe as the aesthetic of an all-women's ensemble, what are the rewards of working with living composers?
Beth Willer There is a flexibility and a participation in the creative process that I find to be really essential to my identity as being a creative person, not just a re-producer of something that was created before my time. And I find that same . . . maybe not the same, but a similar . . . I'm similarly energized by early repertoire where there are so many more questions about how it would have, could have, should have been performed, and how it might be performed in the 21st century. And so there's that flexibility there that isn't so weighed down by performance practice and, you know, recordings, historical recordings that have really shaped our ears. And I love working with a creator who is interested in learning about the people that they're writing for, learning about our mission, collaborating with me on what words might be set or, you know, collaborating with other creators, whether that's a visual artist or a choreographer or a set of composers that are also players.
You know, a lot of the projects we're doing now are expanding the ways in which we work with those composers. I'm not really interested in commissioning in a contractual way. I mean, of course we have contracts, but simply saying "Here are the parameters, I'd like a score by June 15th," and we don't really talk about it until it's finalized. And so we have more and more workshop opportunities to, you know . . . you can't really take risks with new music unless you give a composer a space to try things before it's considered final, right? If I want to write in a way for women's voices, that has not been done before, but there is no exchange between now and the deadline, I'm going to hesitate to take many risks because what if it doesn't work, right? So I think in order to facilitate that risk-taking and that expansion of the aesthetic, that we have to make those opportunities to be in the room with that creative person and say, "Let's try it." And if it doesn't work, we'll try something else.
Brian McCreath So all of that anticipates your work with Julia Wolfe on this piece, but this may be an even more distinct case of a relationship than some other of your collaborations with composers, because, as I understand it, you were the one who suggested the idea to Julia that she write a piece for the centenary of the 19th Amendment. And so I'm curious if you can describe that conversation. Describe your idea, and you must have known Julia before —
Beth Willer Yeah.
Brian McCreath — in order to make the suggestion. What was that conversation like?
Beth Willer Well, I had just worked with Julia on a performance of Anthracite Fields with the Bang on a Can All-Stars with some students in Pennsylvania. And I was . . . I had been aware of Julia's work, I had been aware of Anthracite Fields before that, but I was . . . in being a performer of her music, I became really aware of her unique ability to tell a story about something that happened historically, but make it feel very contemporary and very relevant and kind of shaped the way I was thinking about the community I was living in — in that case, a community that had been surrounded by coal mining and continued to be influenced by that industry. And so I, you know, quickly mentioned to her after that performance, "I hope we can work together again soon."
I probably called her about six months later and said, "I really have been thinking about what we can do for the hundredth anniversary of women's suffrage and the passage of the 19th Amendment." And what I had realized was that 100th anniversary, or the first time women were allowed to vote was exactly 100 years from the presidential election that was pending in 2020. And so that was originally the hope. We were actually going to be doing it in Boston the weekend after Election Day in November 2020. Of course, that didn't end up happening due to our circumstances. But I think what's been really exciting, and maybe it ties in to what I'm saying about the collaborative aspect and the evolutionary aspect of new music, is that in letting that piece and that concept steep over the last couple of years, Julie never intended for that piece to be just about this historical event, but it really evolved into something that I think is probably more meaningful in 2023 than it would have been in 2020.
Brian McCreath The piece is . . . It doesn't necessarily celebrate women's suffrage. It does, but it's not fireworks and, you know, sort of horns blaring and fanfares.
Beth Willer Right. It's not really about suffrage as much as it's about representation and having voice. And being in a position to demand to be seen. And so you see this juxtaposition of Abigail Adams, in a letter that she writes to soon to be our future president, John Adams, as they're drafting the Declaration of Independence, to say, "Don't forget about the women." And just sort of nudging him in a way that I don't imagine an 18th century woman nudging her husband. But it's not to be mistaken. I mean, it's written down. It's very clear what she meant by those words. At the end of the piece, we have the words of Sojourner Truth speaking to an audience extemporaneously. So there is you know, there are multiple accounts of what that speech was.
But I think what . . . regardless of which account you are referencing, there is no doubt that she is saying . . . she's asking to be recognized as an equal contributor to society. "Can't you just give me my piece of recognition and representation?" And she's not even asking actually in that speech for the same level of representation as everyone else. Just some representation. And this idea that you know . . . we could trust women to make requests, and choices, and even influence decisions of our government. Obviously, that's something that we maybe take a little for granted right now, but over the course of this piece, the lists of words that are used by anti-suffragists to describe women . . . they feel so contemporary. They're words that are still hurled at women for asking to have representation, to be recognized, to be treated as, you know, important contributors to society.
So there's a broad application of these words that are very specific in their historical significance, but there is a connection between them, and also a connection beyond them to the women that are seen on stage. I mean, by the end of the piece, they are not representing suffragists anymore, they're representing 21st century women. They are truly themselves at the end of the piece, whereas they begin very much looking like, you know, buttoned-up suffragists.
Brian McCreath Certainly. And as audio only, this piece carries an immense amount of power just in the sheer sonic force of the piece and Julia's writing musically, but on a theatrical level, for those who can be in the hall to witness this, that transformation of the initial appearance of the women and then where we find them by the end of the piece is absolutely a . . . it's an astonishing evolution.
Beth Willer Yeah. And there's evolution in terms of, you know, there's where they are on the stage, how they are each individually, visually represented, their character evolves. There's so much evolution of the people that are representing this movement and this request. And honestly, it evolves from being a request to a demand by the end. So it's . . . it's so powerful, and it should, at least in a few places, make every single one of us squirm in our chairs a little bit, I think. Because it kind of makes you . . . it doesn't kind of, it makes you question if you've been a part of all of these ways that we have limited not just women, but people in our country and their ability to shape their own lives.
Brian McCreath And in that respect, it feels so fitting, even though it wasn't initially conceived this way and even not initially scheduled this way. But as part of this three week series of concerts, that squirming is something, now, three weeks into this, as is familiar, I think, to audiences and that questioning, “What have I been a part of? What can I do from here?”
Beth Willer And I think whether it's you know, whether we're squirming because the music is unfamiliar, or because the words are somehow prodding at us or, you know, it's . . . something about it is either unfamiliar, or maybe just a little too close to home. It's kind of ironic that those two things both make us squirm. But I think if all we're seeking in an artistic experience is comfort and a confirmation of what we already know that we believe, and love, and appreciate, I'm not sure I walk away from that kind of a performance changed. That might feed me in a way that is really important, and I do think that part of what the arts does is just nourish us and give us the strength to walk out and deal with something that's much more difficult than sitting in a concert hall. But I also think if we can ha — balance that with the performances that make us ask questions, and maybe even make us a little bit uncomfortable, then we might walk away evolved. And that also will affect how we walk into the next situation outside of the concert hall. So . . . I think it's a balance.
Brian McCreath Those are wise words. Beth Willer, thanks a lot for your time today and congratulations. It's a stunning piece of music.
Beth Willer Thank you. Thank you. We're really excited to be here.