Sad it was to conclude the MONTH OF MODERNS as the Crossing Choir fell silent about 65 minutes after starting Kile Smith’s setting of the words and poems of Robert Lax.
Sad because this chamber choir and its conductor, Donald Nally, are so enthusiastic about new music you can feel it when they perform and The Arc in the Sky was the last of the three summer forays into new commissions. Now we must wait another twelve months for their next MONTH OF MODERNS.
Kile Smith has composed for the Crossing several times and it was the January 4, 2015 performance of his The Consolation of Apollo that made me a fan of Smith’s music and the Crossing’s uncanny performance technique. This hymnodic and percussive tribute to Apollo 8 emphasized the simple thoughts and emotions that prevail no matter how far technology advances – the awe and amazement of looking at the earth from the sky on a quiet Christmas Eve aboard a space ship.
This time Smith was expressing his own awe and amazement of beauty, love, and nature in his tribute to the words of Robert Lax. Lax was a poet, sage, and philosopher who had served as editor for the New Yorker, poetry editor for Time Magazine, and who wrote his most famous poem collection called Circus of the Sun while touring as a juggler with a circus.
Smith, in tribute to this multifaceted man, selected enough of his writings to set them in a momentous a cappella work which is over an hour in length. Although the chorus did receive pitches to begin each piece, they were so in tune it seemed to just be a little safety measure affording them a chance to regroup between songs.
In many ways, Smith matched the words of Robert Lax with his harmonies. Lax was a major jazz fan and Smith made the first section of his work, Jazz, into his own jazz meld for Robert Lax’s tribute to the high trumpet notes of Louis Armstrong: “That is why they shouted when Louis hit the high notes”. After the jazzy start of the first section, the writing was more contemplative for “There is only one song…the animals lope to it…the fish swim to it…truth.” The third piece was called Cherubim and Palm-Trees, a tribute to Jean-Louis Kerouac (yes, we know him as Jack), which Smith filled with choral melismas and soft sounds.
The second section, Praise, Smith began with a chant which ended in Renaissance polyphony. The next song, The light of the afternoon is on the houses, was glaring and disjointed, like scattering light of a far too bright afternoon sun, slightly calmed to a slow chorus of “and the wind”. The third piece, Psalm, had so many close intervals that it became uncomfortable.
The third section, Arc, mirrored the minimalist nature of Robert Lax’s work with some repeated choruses of “Jerusalem” under a melody with the words, “reading of lovely, ruined Jerusalem, sad, ruined Jerusalem”, as if contemplating the enigma of Lax, a man who after achieving many things in the world retreated from it to his Jerusalem of the Aegean, the island of Patmos. More contemplation resides in Lax’s poems about the Patmos fisherman who daily mend the fishing nets which are broken every night. This was a four-part canon with the altos singing a single note that as it continued and singers traded off the note, began to sound like notes from an organ – pure, simple, and straight. Like the mending of the day, expressed in a melodious and merry melisma, showing the repetitive nature of the mending with a sustained single note.
Although it was a great sendoff, the startling fortissimo attack of the very last song was rude and abrupt – a wild repetition of “The Arc in the Sky” with the intensity one feels when watching the burning sun come up of a morning – wanting to look as long as possible but turning away because the brightness is just too much to bear.
[MONTH OF MODERNS by The Crossing on June 9 at 8 p.m., 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.]