When Toivo Tulev’s setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, “A child said, what is the grass?” had its premiere in June 2015 during the Crossing’s MONTH OF MODERNS, the composer himself was there, an enigmatic Estonian, speaking mystically about his music in a quiet voice as if he were a monk dispensing wisdom. The sound of the music and the remembered image of the man haunt me still, and on this my fourth hearing, nuances come through that I had not noticed before; the quiet resolutions of the striking dissonances, mainly produced by brave and talented sopranos, who, on cue, produce wildly high notes just a half step from what their neighbor is singing. Supported by the entrance of the rich chorus of men, Tulev’s harmonies resolve smoothly as the words of Whitman seek a satisfying answer to the child’s simple question: what is the grass?
But satisfying answers are not what Donald Nally seeks in new pieces for the Crossing’s repertoire. Joel Puckett composed music to set words spoken by Kxao =Oah of northwestern Botswana after being inspired by Bill Moyer’s book on Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth. As Puckett sought to obtain permission to use the text, he contacted the anthropologist who recorded the text in her doctoral thesis, Dr. Marguerite Anne Biesele. If you are still following this story, you must be a fan of Donald Nally’s phantom threads of wisdom and you would be open to a song about “entering the earth…when people sing…climbing threads.” Puckett’s music starts on a monosyllabic series of long notes, then bringing in new sounds, slowly turning over pitches like harmonic embers being stoked over a fire. “When you arrive at God’s place, you make yourself small” was a thin vocal line that slowly expanded into thicker harmonies as “you begin to sing” soared into glissandi.
“The Tower and the Garden” takes three different poems and weaves them into a single four-verse chorale with strings set by Gregory Spears. Verse one is a creative harmonic and melodious setting of Brahmsian lushness of a poem by Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Verse two takes a rocking horse rhythm reminiscent of “This Little Babe” from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony Of Carols for a Denise Levertov poem warning of the dangers of nuclear technology. Verse three sets a poem by Keith Garebian about filmmaker Derek Jarman, who lived through the final stages of AIDS in his austere house with a quiet garden set between a towering nuclear plant and the rough seas off the coast of England. The quartet started with a simple tune of Grieg-like simplicity, the leitmotiv for the entire verse, concluding with drones of fifths in the strings. The final verse was a recapitulation of the Thomas Merton poem, but the music was a lullaby, ending with that superb magic of the Crossing’s soprano section –– limitless unstrained high notes plucked out of ether.
Of all the music, the James Primosch’s setting of an excerpt of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping touched me the most. The text itself is masterful and emotive, and the musical variety was exciting. The salted earth produces “prisms and …fruit …with bright globes of water” with dotted rhythms over transparent harmonies and musical themes beautifully sewn together as they diminished into a melisma of voices for the “angel…brings us wild strawberries.” The way Mr. Primosch lets his music unfold slowly like a luscious meal is a promising harbinger of the all-Primosch recording that Donald Nally and The Crossing are planning to produce next summer.
[The Crossing presents The Tower and the Garden on October 27, 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.]