A rehearsal was still in progress at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill on Germantown Avenue ten minutes before the start of the preconcert lecture, but the 26-page program, a polished work in itself, provided ample entertainment as we took seats in the chapel for the preconcert lecture.
Donald Nally strode in just in time, barefoot and wearing shorts. His co-presenter, 28-year old Ellis Ludwig-Leone, spoke about the world premiere he had written for the concert. The young composer has already written works for major music groups, including the New York City Ballet. He also writes for his band, San Fermin, whose record made NPR’s 50 Best Albums of the Year.
Few conductors would risk having their choir perform newly commissioned works, but Nally has brought his professional chamber choir, The Crossing, to such a high level that they can meet the challenge, in fact, they received a Grammy for their 2017 recording of Gavin Byars The Fifth Century. The Crossing and Nally have become stalwart supporters of living composers, commissioning new works and presenting them in June for the past nine years.
This program had many pieces with shadings of minimalism, where themes are repeated à la Philip Glass or Steve Reich, but with the Crossing, the repeated phrases take on a vivid quality. Ludwig-Leone’s Who What When Where and Why (and a few other questions) took questions he solicited from friends and made the interrogatives into a refrain. The choir started the piece cooing and scooping the word “who”, building to piercing dissonances and crescendoed to the final “whys” on a crescendo of high pitches.
Lincoln, written by 23-year-old Alex Berko, created an underlying march rhythm by having the singers break up their phrases so they sounded like marching boots as they sang the words “by the truth…that… marches…on.” Berko is still a student at Indiana University, but he has already won the SCI/ASCAP Commission Competition and the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) Brock Composition Prize, to mention a few.
David Lang’s three pieces, which the Crossing just finished recording for Cantaloupe Records, were distinct in style. a house, commissioned by Northwestern University for the opening of their Ryan Center for the Musical Arts, is based on Proverbs: 24:3,4: Through wisdom is a house built, through understanding it is established, through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures. Lang starts his piece with the words listed in alphabetical order, to symbolize the bricks of the building, which seemed rather gimmicky. At the end of the piece they are sung in textual order.
Lang’s statement to the court was both the most strident and most moving piece on the program. The words are taken from Socialist Eugene Debs’ 1918 statement to the court before he was sentenced for sedition. The booming bass drum and vertiginous high notes were so jarring, it was hard to absorb the moving words: “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”
The concert had begun with a nebulous and quiet song by Pēteris Vasks, The Fruit of Silence, which had a saccharin piano accompaniment. The program ended with a melodious yet uncloying work, just. Based on Solomon’s Song of Songs, Lang’s piece was performed by the women. It was a gentle love song, punctuated with the softest of bass drum, strings and a bell-like sound which I could not identify. It calmed the ragged nerve endings jarred by statement to the court.
[MONTH OF MODERNS by The Crossing on June 9, at 8 p.m., June 17 at 4 p.m. and June 30, 2018 at 8:00 p.m. at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8885 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. Tickets and information can be found on crossingchoir.org.]