Sorelle Octet sings at Berkeley’s First Congregational

Sorelle, a little-known choral gem, mustered strength and flexibility in a program March 1 at the Loper Chapel of Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. The cozy accoustics fit the careful blend of this female octet. Founded 12 years ago by SF Early Music Society’s Meryl Sacks, Sorelle now has as artistic director Marcelle Dronkers, who crafted a lively program spanning from early music to world premiere.

As the lights darkened, two voices floated down from the rear balcony singing “Sous le dôme épais,” the well-known duet from the opera Lakmé. Katherine Lipka sank into the mezzo line with a richness that was dense and transparent, a contradiction like lead and sand transmuting to crystal. Zoe Boxer traced the soprano line, a lighter gilding that completed the magic of that moment.

The octet followed with selections from Händel’s Arcadian duets. Esther Archer accompanied on piano with elegant weighting and baroque restraint. Flowery runs and intimate counterpoint slowed for sweet blending in “Mà le speranze vane,” and the slow melancholy of “Ma se l’alma” showed off their fine tuning.

SorelleAfter three bittersweet Brahms art songs, Lipka returned for a solo, wowing the audience with “Gluck, das mir verblieb,” Marietta’s aria from Die Tote Stadt. It was sung with genuine feeling and exceptionally sunny high notes, and the tight vibrato focused its punch. The final notes were vocal slides that gained power as they evanesced.

Sorelle returned after intermission with a very different powerhouse, the premiere of four poems by Laura Glen Louis, author and Sorelle sister (“Sorelle” actually means “sisters”). These were set by local composer and clarinetist Larry London. “Solstice” held tight harmonies and loose intervals, a sense of wandering within a tension that comes as much from the lyrical text as it does from the dissonant intersection of the vocal lines.

“Don’t Drink…the blood of roses” followed, with direct vocal writing and conflicting piano accompaniment. This disconcerting mix propelled the piece to a wistful finish, left and right hands softly out of register like blurred comics.

“She cultivates,” a portrait of a friend and her garden, held sweeter chords and a gentle piano line for round phrases that belied their complexity:

“So lush her heart that under her
spell, mad dogs and men fluoresce.
In her unpruned countenance
even hardscape blooms.”

The last poem, “Daisy, daisy,” used stable tensions and easy dissonances. Its capricious phrases gave a lighthearted look at love’s whimsy.

Returning us to the more mundane, Zoe Boxer showcased her doo-wop, operatic and Bronx voices in Tesori’s humorous “Girl in 14G.” The group reassembled for a fabulous arrangement of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” building slow jazz chords to a climax, then Lipke rode the high note down in style.

They returned to satisfying barbershop in Irving Berlin’s “Sisters,” and, after lengthy applause, encored with a four-part harmony version of “Amazing Grace” that revealed both hard work and close bond.

The current members of Sorelle are Zoe Boxer, Ronni Brega, Priscilla Campbell, Katharine Gale, Christiane Khan, Katherine Lipka, Laura Glen Louis, and Cristin Williams.

Adam Broner

Originally published in the Piedmont Post