Finding Art and Life in the Moment: Donald Nally and The Crossing
Donald Nally may not yet be a household name, but that is in no way a reflection of his status in the world of choral conductors. Nally is a major player in his field, having in his 30 professional years directed and in many cases built an impressive string of ensembles. He studied at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Rider University’s Westminster Choir College, and the University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana, and points to his work with Joseph Flummerfelt at Westminster Choir College as particularly formative. It resulted in a life-long friendship and a recent book by Nally about his mentor,
Conversations with Joseph Flummerfelt: Thoughts on Conducting, Music and Musicians
(Scarecrow Press). As of the fall of 2012, Nally is a professor at the Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music.
Among the most visible choirs of which Nally has been chorus master are those of several prestigious opera companies: the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the Spoleto Festival, Italy, Welsh National Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. During this time, Nally also led concerts with the Spoleto Festival Choir, the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia, and Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia. Repertoire in these concerts often included contemporary works, which was to become a larger part of Nally’s musical focus as time went on. This work with chamber choirs gained a great deal of attention and several honors, not least for the adventurous programming, and has led Nally to form professional chamber choirs with the specific mission of performing contemporary, often commissioned, works. This began in the 1990s with his first professional choir, The Bridge Ensemble in Philadelphia, continued with his assumption of the directorship of VAE: Cincinnati’s Vocal Arts Ensemble, and has climaxed—well, for now—with his current professional group, The Crossing.
Nally’s departure at age 50 from Lyric Opera of Chicago—certainly a
if there ever was one—in order to devote his time to a professional choir that performs exclusively contemporary music, even one as outstanding as The Crossing, seems like an extraordinary leap of faith. This is especially true given the financial difficulties of The Bridge Ensemble in the same locale. So, the choir, its development, and the decision to focus on it were among the first things I wanted to ask him about.
RG: Can we start with some information on how The Crossing came to be? I have read the short account online, but felt there must be more to the story. How did that concert come about in the first place?
DN: I moved to Philadelphia in 1992 to become the chorus master at the Opera Company of Philadelphia (now Opera Philadelphia) and also a faculty member at West Chester University. My journey in Philadelphia was an interesting one: Not at all what I could have expected, and I’m very grateful. I was already involved with The Spoleto Festivals in Charleston and Italy as the opera chorus master. When those two festivals split, due to a disagreement between Charleston’s administration and founder Gian Carlo Menotti, he invited me to form my own professional choir and bring it to Italy to be the resident choir at his famous festival. He and I became friends, and he was important in my development, both professionally and artistically.
Our choir in Italy was just amazing and we had such a great time that we decided to bring it home to Philadelphia and call it The Bridge Ensemble. I left my job at the university to run this ensemble, and the few concerts we had were marvelous. But I was young and didn’t know how these things work; it was unsustainable, at least the U.S. component.
Soon after I was offered a position at St. Mark’s Church as choirmaster; I brought with me many of the professionals from The Bridge Ensemble/The Spoleto Festival Choir. We built a fantastic music program at the church with the support of the rector, Rick Alton, who had come from St. Thomas, Fifth Ave, NYC. I was able to bring Scott Dettra into the mix as organist, which really changed things; he is such an extraordinary musician.
In 1998 I was asked to be music director of the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia, and I also was able to bring many of the same singers who, by now, knew my every nuance and idea and
way too much
about my life. So, balancing all these things, after four years with Choral Arts—and winning the Margaret Hillis Award—I stepped down to ponder the next chapter in my life. I knew I needed to challenge myself in a different way, and I was very interested in living somewhere in Europe. The conductor Richard Hickox recommended me to Welsh National Opera and I visited. It seemed like a good fit, and so I moved to Cardiff and toured with that company to Belfast, Edinburgh, London, Plymouth, Birmingham, Liverpool, etc. It was lots of fun, though I hated the weather and was not wild about certain aspects of working there.
On a trip back to Philadelphia, I was having a drink with some of the old gang of singers—many of whom had by then moved on—and one rather wistfully suggested that we ought to have a reunion concert. We all laughed, but when I got back to Wales, Jeff Dinsmore, our co-founder, wrote and said, ‘Why not?’ That November we gathered 16 of our favorite singers, we gave the group a name, the Philadelphia
published a preview article that began with the phrase “They’re back,” and here we are.
RG: Obviously a lot had to happen between that first concert in 2005 and those first recordings with an award-winning choir in 2009.
DN: The review in the
following the concert asked, “When will there be another?” I hadn’t thought about that, nor anticipated that question, so that second season we thought we’d try three concerts, still splitting the box office like the first one. We only pulled off two that second year, but after that, we realized our audience was serious about us. They were dedicated; they didn’t know the composers or the works they were coming to hear, but they trusted the group. The first concert was not entirely contemporary music, but I knew that that was the direction we would go if we continued. The next concert made that direction very clear with a kind of “this is what we want to do, and we’re not going to listen to those people who think you need to program Mozart to get an audience.” We also expanded to 24 very soon, since many newer works with extensive
require that number.
RG: So, what happened with The Bridge Ensemble, and how have you managed to make The Crossing financially viable?
DN: I’ve had two big events in my life that have caused a major reassessment of my journey. The first was the death of my best friend in 1996; it caused me to evaluate how I spent my time and what I really wanted to be doing. So, I quit my job at West Chester University in 1996 to start The Bridge Ensemble. What I didn’t realize about such organizations is that they have to grow organically. You’ll never have the funds to immediately pay a market wage to a significant number—36 at the time—without the ownership and energy of the singers. Or, if you do find a source for those funds, you’ll be beholden to a lot of outside opinions as to how the group should run. We had great performances, but I went broke. I also learned a ton and put it to use when we formed The Crossing, which was, indeed, simply a group of friends getting together to make their rather unique art.
The Crossing is financially viable because we allowed it to develop gradually and organically. We pay the singers a steadily increasing wage based on our success in ticket revenue and foundation support, the latter of which is/was directly tied to the former. In the remarkable growth of our audience lies the answer to many of your questions. By year four we were able to pay a market wage and were being invited to collaborate as guests of other ensembles, adding income for the singers. Only just recently have we added overhead—an operations manager, part-time bookkeeper, and grant consultant—because the administrative needs of the increasing number of projects and performances and New York concerts could not be met otherwise. We did this when we knew that this additional staff would not affect our ability to pay artists first.
So, we have been very slow and somewhat methodical about the growth of the organization, allowing attention to come to us when deserved, relying on the singers and their generosity and enthusiasm to build a strong and stable structure that now pays them a high-end wage in Philadelphia. The website is clean and modest, the programs lovely and informative but simple, the tickets not very expensive, the marketing entirely Internet-based, concert dress is consistent but informal, in fact, concerts have a bit of a spontaneous feeling. It
reflects a singular aesthetic. The Crossing IS the artists. That may sound corny, but it is true in every dimension.
RG: Being able to maintain a chorus that doesn’t do
every Christmas to raise funds is certainly a blessing. (I have nothing against Handel’s ubiquitous masterpiece, but you know what I mean.) I am intrigued by the idea that you can make such selections without, as you say, “be[ing] beholden to a lot of outside opinions.” You must have a remarkably supportive board. And I know that there are many choral directors out there who would love to know how you and your singers have developed an audience for contemporary, and often quite challenging, repertoire. Obviously excellence is a big part of it, but professional choirs are a rarity, quite aside from one that sustains itself on new music. Can you share any secrets?
DN: I have to, somewhat, guess here as to why the audience has grown so significantly and endured. I think they trust the quality of the work, since they can’t possibly know the music. And they trust the journey of the evening. Even when we do a number of 10-minute works, they are arranged carefully to create an emotional landscape that we navigate together. And they enjoy the
. Crossing concerts tend to be really fun for everyone; there are many musicians and composers in the audience, the age-range of the audience is huge, there’s a buzz, there’s always something special like lighting or placement in the space or a visiting composer, there’s always a reception full of chatter about what was just heard. And, there is that feeling of becoming intimately familiar with a body of work that would otherwise be veiled to them: to
the work of Gabriel Jackson or Mark Winges.
RG: You said there was a second life-shaping event…
DN: The second event was 9/11, which, I believe, finally convinced me to do exactly what I want and nothing else, to cease being concerned with how others may choose to live their lives and careers. If there is a secret to share about whatever success we may have—and I’m skeptical that there is—I would say it is a life secret, and a very obvious one; do what you want to do and don’t do those things you don’t want to do. I know, a reader is going to think “Duh, sure, but...” However, I have been fortunate in my life to either be stupid enough or clever enough to actually live by that simple rule most of the time. I know that, to some, my “career,” whatever that is, has looked like a series of “quittings.” To me—at least from the perspective of looking back in time—it is a rather logical series of discoveries and adjustments based on growth and curiosity, and motivated by a need to make art. Our ensemble has similarly navigated from a start with mixed repertoire, to soon reach a point of programming clarification, singing what we really enjoyed together. What we loved doing, and what we were completely energized by, is singing contemporary (postmodern) works. So, we do that. We do what we love doing.
RG: “A series of quittings.” I like that. It strikes me that it takes great bravery, or willingness to take a risk at least, to be able to change direction like that, and some remarkable introspection to know when to quit and when to begin again. So, what exactly does it mean to you that a piece is postmodern? I have heard the term used more often than not with a certain pejorative undercurrent, as if postmodernism is somehow more of a rejection of what was, than any affirmation of something new. I doubt you mean it that way, but I am curious what qualities such works have for you.
DN: This is a rather long discussion, and I have lectured on it at the Universities of Indiana, Illinois, and Northwestern. To make a very lengthy concept concise: Modernism brought music into a realm so separated from the listener that postmodernism essentially reacts to that, often returning to harmonies that, while they may not be
[that is, utilizing the principles of harmony typical of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods] they recall to the listener certain gestures that are universally understood. Modernism often tried to separate memory—and even emotion—from music. Postmodernism embraces memory and often calls on previously written works of art to emphasize that we may recognize a gesture of a previous era, but that gesture lies at a great distance from its original meaning. In fact, it magnifies our distance from it. I am keenly interested in this.
RG: Highly impertinent question: Why? Can you give a reader who is perhaps suspicious of all contemporary music some pathway into the language of at least the postmodernists with whom you work? If Modernism has alienated audiences (though obviously not all), how does postmodernism propose to bring the disaffected back when in many ways postmodernism challenges the same functional aesthetic assumptions of those listeners? Or does it even wish to address those listeners?
DN: It’s very hard to comment on the era that you’re in. Those cameras in space that have shown us what we look like from a distance have changed how we think of ourselves as a planet and a population on that planet. There is no such camera to view culture. So, I give it my best shot, knowing that history may find me to be incorrect. It may make a place for composers we’ve ignored, and it may dismiss those who speak directly to our contemporary sensibility.
That being said, I do believe that postmodern composers are not terribly concerned with the preservation of art as a lofty oasis or even a canon, and instead have embraced the rich diversity of music in the global era; Eastern music, Eastern philosophy, pop music, rock, jazz, blues, soul music, functionality, etc., all play roles in our music today. Minimalism probably would not exist without acknowledging popular music and as such is, in part, a reaction to Modernism. But, I also believe that much of this is not reactionary, because we have transitioned quickly into embracing the full variety of compositional techniques through the ages; individuality—a personal, compositional voice—is of primary concern.
I find that we are in an era of extraordinarily individual compositional voices that are primarily concerned with reaching the listener directly. With apologies to the Modernist era, history has shown that you simply do not reach most listeners—even most sophisticated listeners—through music that lacks those basic elements by which they identify sound as music, for example, melody and harmony. While many postmodern composers do not use melody and harmony in
manners [to use Walter Piston’s term], those elements are there and they are obvious and they speak to listeners.
We know very little about the manner in which music works on our memory, but it clearly does, at least in two ways; it touches places in our memory and evokes certain emotions, and it works through repetition within a piece to engage us in a kind of emotional journey. When composers began to truly understand the powerful impact harmonic movement can have on our emotions and began marrying melody to harmonic motion, music came into a new place and remained there for quite some time; the romantic model is a powerful thing. Except for a handful of (mislabeled) neoromantics, this was largely lost for a time in the post-Webern era. Many postmodernists demonstrate a respect of
, even if their music isn’t
; they understand the effect this has on the listening brain. Let’s face it; discernible counterpoint and harmonic movement moves us.
RG: So, how does the decision to perform a new work come about? I of course know some of David Lang’s work—I have been quite taken with his
The Little Match Girl Passion
—and James MacMillan’s and Gabriel Jackson’s. Others on these CDs, some described as regular collaborators, are new to me. How do you locate pieces and composers where what you are seeking out is in no way standard repertoire? And what are your criteria for selecting a work to perform?
DN: I “find” works in a number of ways. First, we receive hundreds of submissions each year and have for a number of years. One of the joys of my work is sifting through these, but one of the difficult aspects is knowing that fully 95 percent of these are not going to fit The Crossing. I do a lot of online research and have an assistant who does the same; I want to know what new works are being written as they are premiered, and so we check the programming of the leading European chamber and radio choirs, as well as that of a few American choirs. We pursue composer trails that may not necessarily be obvious for their choral output.
The most important aspect of choosing is getting the right fit for our singers and audience. Both are a sophisticated bunch, with educated tastes in both literature and music. Both want to be challenged intellectually and emotionally. Both take their art seriously, but not themselves! Neither wants to be preached to or ‘taught.’ I stress this latter point; we are in the entertainment business, not the education business. This is an important distinction.
About half of the music we sing each year is written for us. We tend to like longer works: works that take the listener on a journey spanning more than your four-minute motet. We like works that create the environment we expect at the symphony or opera: a sustained emotional landscape over a half-hour or hour. We have migrated toward doing quite a number of socially motivated pieces as well, and our audience has responded with extreme enthusiasm.
RG: What is your commissioning process? Do you approach certain composers you have been watching—the ones who aren’t known for writing choral music, for instance—or do you have some sort of open competition?
DN: No open competitions here. (Though, part of our Knight Foundation Arts Challenge Grant includes a competition for commissions for summer 2014, specifically designed for the IceBox at Crane Arts Center, a kind of industrial cathedral.) Otherwise, I have many composers that I follow and would love to commission, but it’s a careful process of matching the composer to a specific project. That’s the exciting and challenging part; we do not simply approach a composer and ask them to write a piece. We always have a context in mind. Our upcoming commissions include works by John Luther Adams, Gavin Bryars, Ted Hearne, and Joel Puckett.
RG: There are obviously some composers with whom you have a continuing relationship. Kile Smith, Paul Fowler, David Lang, and Gabriel Jackson caught my attention earlier. Could you comment on these and other (apparently) longer-term relationships?
DN: Kile has an extremely facile and creative approach to choral voices and textures. We’ve enjoyed exploring topics outside his normal realm, asking him to set secular texts when he may have migrated toward the sacred. Paul is a gifted and versatile musician who I think could write for any forces on any topic. His interest in Eastern thought fits our aesthetic in a lovely way. David is one of the most courageous composers I’ve come to know. He creates a raw, honest language and a texture that is perfect for The Crossing, but also challenging, due to its transparency and the need to let it be. Gabriel loves writing for The Crossing because he can write with abandon. We love that he hears our sounds in his head and goes for it.
A few others you didn’t mention: Benjamin C. S. Boyle is a long-time friend of The Crossing. He brings out our romantic qualities and explores our rich, lush side. Lansing McLoskey is a very distinctive voice; it was a risk at first, but he gets our aesthetic and has written right into it. And, David Shapiro has written more works for us than any other; his intense, emotionally charged compositional voice is seductive to our collective artistic needs.
Of course, in choosing repertoire there are many practical aspects as well; rehearsal time, vocal sustainability/fatigue in concert, style congruence or variety, instrumental forces, and production aspects. This last is an increasing concern with composers keenly interested in adding singer-played instruments, or full 24-voice
, or staged movement. I have a big, big pile of works I’d like to do sometime, but I am not one that checks works off my ‘to do’ list. Program construction is so much more complex and interesting than that.
Most programs are either single works, or the programming is based around a commission. In the upcoming
Month of Moderns
, we are doing our project
The Gulf (between you and me)
, which you can read about on the site [crossingchoir.com]. Of course, I didn’t know exactly how the works would turn out, but I was able to go in the direction of environment/nature when filling out the programming beyond the commissions. That led me to the Latvian composer Santa Ratniece and the idea of further unifying the three concerts of the festival with a U.S. premiere of one of her works on each. We then needed an additional 15-minute work for each concert. So I found a variety of ‘atmospheric’ works with titles such as
[Justé Janulyté] and
[Tamar Diesendruck] that go really beautifully with this overall connection to the Gulf of Mexico and our world’s waters in general.
But, we do not present works as political statements overtly. I think when art becomes blatantly political, it is bound to lose some of its art. I am, though, highly influenced by William Saroyan’s assertion that artists in the 20th century simply could no longer make the distinction between art and life. ‘All things must come together as one, which is man.’ This background philosophy drives much of my work, and therefore our work.
RG: I am intrigued by your reference to Saroyan. Here, I believe, is the context for the quote:
Art and politics must move closer together. Reflection and action must be equally valid in good men if history is not to take one course and art another. The weakness of art is that great poems do not ennoble politics, as they certainly should, and the trouble with politics is that they inspire poets only to mockery and scorn. We have always believed that art should be one thing, religion one thing, politics one thing, morality one thing, and so on. This kind of isolation of entities, while convenient, is I believe, foolish.
All things must come together as one, which is man.
The functioning of all things should be to the glory of living. Art is answerable to politics, and politics is answerable to religion, and all are answerable to man, so that when there is disgrace in life, as there is now, we are all guilty. — William Saroyan, Something About a Soldier 
If I remember correctly, he came very close to being court martialed for writing that play, as he was in the military and seemed to be presenting an argument for pacifism. But here the argument is about the responsibility of art, and I think that was what you were reflecting on in the context of the rather political theme of
The Gulf (between you and me).
So without being blatant or overt—and I wonder where that line is—you are not averse to presenting a political message? I had not seen this in the three recordings I have listened to. Can you tell me more? Is such commentary common in your programming?
DN: We are not averse to following our collective bias.
Point of view
is essential to great art and is, frankly, lacking from some contemporary musical performances—both interpretively and culturally. And, you are right, our recordings don’t necessarily reflect our somewhat progressive view. But, that’s mostly due to funding available for recordings; we’d record everything if we could! And, keep in mind that, as I have said, we are entertainers, not educators or politicians.
RG: Then the shared progressive point of view and the postmodern aesthetic: Where do you want them to lead? I have not heard the music by Santa Ratniece, but the concept of
The Gulf (between you and me)
sounds very powerful. Clearly these concerts are designed to make a statement. And yet entertain primarily? Is that a necessary approach? Do people stay away from didactic concerts? Even your sophisticated audience?
DN: I am unflinching on this. As I said, I cannot stand the idea that musicians are educators; that’s just crap. We’re entertainers; we attempt to define our world so that the listener can recognize themselves in it and respond. That’s what art is. The Crossing’s work reflects my own loves, biases, and concerns, and, by default, the artists involved embrace this on a certain level. However, we are here to better understand our emotional lives through the curious way in which a combination of vibrations in the air works on our memories and moves us to laughter or tears. End of story.
Ensembles that think otherwise are misguided; world peace is never going to be reached through music. Otherwise, that would have happened a thousand years ago, and we wouldn’t be constantly identifying new enemies to give us a national identity; wouldn’t be dealing with our national guilt by invading, invading, invading with no threat to our land, etc. Music is an astonishing part of our lives; it is so universal and so integral. It is not, however, a universal
; that’s a myth. It’s completely cultural. Love, however, is a powerful force (though perhaps not as powerful as hate). I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by it in the form of artists at all times, with The Crossing, Northwestern, The Bach Project. We can say a lot, we just can’t get caught up in trying to do anything but express our inner lives as the composers’ advocates. So, I guess the direction is “today.”
RG: I have been reading your book
Conversations with Joseph Flummerfelt
and could not miss that one chapter was titled “The Crossing.” The discussion is regarding the intersection—the crossing—between the cognitive and the intuitive where art takes place. Is this the source of the group’s name? And would you be willing to comment on the choice of the name of the choir and the significance of the crossing concept to your work with it?
DN: As you know, The Crossing was formed while I was in Wales. Jeff, our co-founder, and I tossed around a lot of ideas, but I kept coming back to music as a bridge. Our first try at a professional choir was called The Bridge Ensemble. This was partly named for the Ben Franklin Bridge, which I was living under at the time (not on the street), as well as for the previously mentioned intent to reach across emotional divides. The Crossing carried this further, incorporating a number of things: the crossing of oceans and continents, as some of us did at the time; the crossing as the place in the church where these singers would first offer their inaugural concert; the crossing as a book by Cormic McCarthy that is of particular interest to me and my life view; and the crossing as that intersection that Joe and I spoke about so many years ago and that has guided my life and art for decades. Joe Flummerfelt is among my very closest friends. He was my main mentor and he has shared his wisdom, strength, and incredibly artistry with me for 27 years. One of my great privileges was his agreement to let me write a book about him. I wanted to name that book
, but Scarecrow would have none of that, owing to the publishing industry’s understandable focus on Google searches.
RG: We’ve covered a lot of ground and hardly touched on the three recordings. There are the two published on Innova in 2013. The Navona disc
, It is Time
, was published in 2011, so I am assuming this was recorded prior to your departure from Chicago. Is there another CD in the near offing?
DN: Actually these were recorded at various times and released in the last several months. The women’s choir CD,
I Want to Live
, was recorded summer 2011, the Christmas CD,
in October 2011. A Lewis Spratlan CD—his
Hesperus is Phosphorus
, our concert-length commission for Month of Moderns 2012—is due out sometime soon; it is being curated by our co-commissioner, Network for New Music.
Hesperus is Phosphorus
—unorthodox, if I am to trust David Patrick Stearns’s description in his concert review in the
—sounds fascinating. Are there any more recording projects on the horizon? And where in general do you see The Crossing going in the years ahead?
DN: Oy. We are struggling with keeping up with offers. We are
fortunate. We have 10 different programs next season: 10! That includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, those world premieres of Ted Hearne and Gavin Bryars, American premieres of John Luther Adams and James MacMillan, and we are currently speaking with a major West Coast orchestra about a West Coast premiere. We would like to expand to touring: not bus tours, but residencies in Chicago and the like. This is entirely possible, but requires a level of organization that we cannot currently take on due to the ‘issues at hand’ (all those amazing projects). We do plan to continue recording and we have acquired some generous friends that will help us to do so.
I would add—and here I’ll interject that I realize the article’s subject is The Crossing—that I am daily reminded of how truly fortunate I am. I conduct wonderful ensembles and I am
teaching at the university, conducting choirs with our smart and talented students, and mentoring my exemplary graduate students. I had a friend visit one of my Northwestern choirs a few weeks ago. We had been in doctoral school together in 89–91. After the rehearsal, I was complaining that it hadn’t been their best day and that everyone needs to work harder and take more risks. He responded that I hear things through the lens of The Crossing, VAE, Lyric Opera Chorus, etc., when what he had heard at Northwestern was a choir better than any he’d ever conducted. This was a vivid reminder to me of how fortunate I am.
Finally: The Crossing lives its life largely as I do; stick to the task, listen to what the world is saying to you, don’t let money or criticism or anything else stop you from saying what you want and need to say, support the creators who have the courage to write down their feelings for us to re-create, seek advice but don’t give in to how people (or the non-profit structure or the standard professional ensemble model) think you should do things, honor those who listen and program according to their amazing intellect and sense of adventure, love a lot of people and let the naysayers have their cherished first amendment rights, don’t compare yourself to anyone else, embrace tradition, look forward, and read.
IT IS TIME
Donald Nally, cond; The Crossing
NAVONA 5845 (64:54
Text and Translation)
It is Time. The Years from You to Me.
Where flames a word.
Variationen mit Celan-Gedichten III.
I WANT TO LIVE
Donald Nally, cond; The Crossing
INNOVA 856 (69:25
Text and Translation)
I live in pain. I Lie. this condition. evening morning day. I want to live.
Mediaeval Lyrics (Six).
Potter’s Clay. Echoes.
Donald Nally, cond; Scott Dettra (org);
The Crossing; St. Paul’s Church, Chestnut Hill Ch
INNOVA 853 (57:49
Text and Translation)
What child is this?.
Alpha and Omega.
I look from afar.
Ane sang of the birth of Christ. To morning. Tomorrow go ye forth.
Lullay, lullay, little child.
Carols for Wintertide (Three).
Love came down at Christmas.
Adam lay ybounden.
To what extent Donald Nally’s life philosophy has materially shaped his music-making and musical choices cannot be known, but there is no denying the skill of the choir with which he has recorded here, and the quality of the music he chooses to perform. The Crossing, a professional choir based in Philadelphia, is as fine a chamber chorus as will be found anywhere. The tone is fairly bright in the style of many English choirs, with a tightly controlled, even nonexistent, vibrato; the result is a purity of sound and transparency of texture that often has the cool beauty of cut crystal. At other times, and especially in the warmer acoustic of the church used for the Christmas CD, the sound takes on an incandescent glow. The singing is almost entirely
. The precision of intonation, rhythm, balance, and diction is unerring, even in—no,
in—works that would simply be beyond any but the most gifted groups of singers. Nally, a choral trainer of substantial reputation, acknowledges his good fortune during the interview in a statement both disarmingly modest and plainly honest. He has, in The Crossing, a collection of singing talent that would be the delight of any choral conductor. These are exceptional musicians who have joined together in a remarkable joint venture. Their good fortune is that Nally clearly knows what to do with the resources at his disposal.
All of the music recorded here—and in fact the choir’s entire repertoire—is contemporary. Much of it is quite beautiful by any standard, and there is hardly a measure of it that is not compelling, or mesmerizing, or thought-provoking, or challenging in the best sense of that word. Nally describes it as postmodern, a term sometimes associated with an aesthetic of cheeky reactionism, but one feels little of the ironic or parodic in what these composers offer. In fact, Nally comments on modern music’s rejection of overt emotion in his interview, and argues that many composers of postmodern music are again concerned with reaching the listener directly. That is borne out here. True, the idioms are often daring as much as impassioned, but it would be a sad oversight for lovers of fine singing, interested in the future of choral music, to miss exploring these remarkable compositional voices. Nally has had great success in building loyal audiences for this music in Philadelphia, based in large part on their trust in the integrity of what he is doing. These performances are eloquent advocates for these works.
(Innova) is the most approachable of the three releases. The traditions of this season almost assure that new music for it will be charismatic and to some degree nostalgic, whatever the underlying style. Many of the composers are British—inveterate carol writers—and some, like James MacMillan and Gabriel Jackson, are familiar. MacMillan is the one exception to the prevailing tone, choosing a dramatic text from the Book of Revelation in his
Alpha and Omega
. Jackson is represented by four works. In them he explores medieval chant, Renaissance polyphony, and Anglican homophonic hymnody through a contemporary prism. Stephen Layton and Polyphony (Hyperion) have recorded one of these,
, on a resplendent CD dedicated to Jackson’s work. The Crossing’s performance is no less luminous.
There are, as well, lovely carols by Benjamin C. S. Boyle commissioned by Nally for his various choruses over the last few years, and pieces by less well-known English composers like Jonathan Varcoe, Kerry Andrew, and Colin Mawby. American listeners will likely recognize a much-loved carol,
Love came down at Christmas
(1989), the earliest work on the program, and one of the last written by North Dakota-based composer Edwin Fissinger. The CD concludes with
, an exquisite and unassuming setting by Robert Convery of the Rossetti poem
Before the paling of the stars.
The Navona disc,
It is Time
, is the earliest of the three discs, consisting mostly of unaccompanied works from the Celan Project, a program conceived by Nally for The Crossing on the elusive Impressionist verse of Paul Celan. The poetry of Celan, a German-speaking Romanian Jew who survived the Holocaust and eventually settled in Paris after the war, is ideal for such treatment, as its purposeful, often dreamlike vagueness, even about matters of intense reality, is a perfect complement to the necessary inexactitude of musical setting. Three of the works were commissioned from David Shapiro, Kile Smith, and Kirsten Broberg for a series of concerts in 2009. Shapiro’s
It is Time
—a setting of Celan’s
—and his companion setting of
The Years from You to Me
, written in 2010 for this recording, reinforce both the love-song imagery of the verse and its darkness. Smith’s
Where flames a word
is a setting of two poems and a prose piece, which in his hands find an uncertain transcendence in the struggle toward different kinds of reconciliation and concord. And, intensely concentrated, emotionally and musically, Broberg’s
, which concludes the disc, joins five of Celan’s short poems into a little over five minutes of remarkable musical inventiveness.
Two other Celan settings are included. Frank Havrøy’s
draws on a poem of faith shattered by life experience, while in
Variationen mit Celan-Gedichten III
, German composer Erhard Karkoschka combines spoken word, wordless vocalization, and
with a quote of a Bach chorale sung haltingly as if the words offer both comfort and pain. Birth and death—here of Celan’s infant son’s—are the subject, as they are in a very different way in Paul Fowler’s
, the one non-Celan-based work. Coming from the next year’s Levine Project, the setting of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine contrasts fears of mortality with the immortality of rock and mountain, and creates a view from the summit that is not romantic, but no less exultant: most impressive.
The last disc explores more distant shores of postmodernism, with five works by experimentalist American composer David Lang acting as bookends and framework for a program of music for
women’s chorus. Three of Lang’s works deal with lost or absent love, with the composer’s trademark architect-like precision paradoxically creating musical structures of piercing emotion. A fourth,
, sets a prose poem by Lydia Davis using dispassionate, disconnected Minimalist phrasing familiar from his
The Little Match Girl Passion
to create a surprising sensuality in a stream of consciousness flow of images.
Evening morning day
similarly sets disconnected words, in this case the Genesis creation story stripped of all verbs and religious referents: a list of creations and time periods with no action or actor. The result is enigmatic, but mesmerizing and appealing as an abstract. Incidentally, this work and
were recorded by Paul Hillier and Ars Nova Copenhagen (Harmonia Mundi), and fine as those performances are, The Crossing’s are superior in both precision and character. Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen provides the third example of verbal minimalism in
associating words with specific pitches and then applying a strict algorithm for repetition while layering lines to provide increasingly complex harmony and counterpoint.
Two works by Paul Fowler,
, the latter written for The Crossing, offer a refreshing contrast to some of the earlier anguish. They incorporate verses on Tibetan themes from children’s books by Naomi C. Rose. The most substantial work at nearly 30 minutes—and meaning no slight to the other fine works, the most appealing to my ears—is William Brooks’s contemporary/modal
Six Mediaeval Lyrics
. Originally written for the three solo voices of Trio Mediaeval, this expansion of the work for women’s chorus was undertaken for The Crossing in 2010. The tone of the six poems ranges from the aggressively playful to the tender to the tragic, and Brooks’s settings are virtuosic: dissonant and spiky or achingly beautiful to underscore the text. Unsettled shifting of lines, bold solo pyrotechnics, demanding chords, and vocal glissandos give way to ravishing harmonies and, in the finale movement, modal homophony in an infinitely sad farewell. It is a vocal
tour de force.
A couple of quibbles: The Navona disc includes some useful extended content: program notes, scores of five of the works, composer biographies with website links. All, plus an annoyingly inflexible player which offers no track access, require access to a computer. There are no printed materials besides the track list on the back, and it and the Christmas CD insert are rendered almost unreadable in places by poor text size and background choices.
More troubling is the sound on the Navona disc. In truth, none of these recordings capture the choir’s sound ideally.
is sometimes soft of focus, while
I want to live
, perhaps because it accurately reflects the bright resonance of the church in which it was recorded, is a bit aggressive. The Navona recording, however, sounds compressed and re-equalized to the point of congestion, and the sopranos, when at higher dynamic levels, become harsh and distorted. Given the generally good quality of Paul Vazquez’s results in the other two releases, I have to assume this reflects postproduction intervention by Navona. It is not enough to put me off the recording, but it is regrettable. In every other way, this and the other two releases are expertly done and most highly recommended.
Ronald E. Grames