The concept at the heart of The Crossing’s latest offering, Seven Responses, probably sounds creepy to many modern people. In 1680, the great Baroque composer Dietrich Buxtehude composed seven cantatas addressed to the parts of Christ’s body that were centers of pain during the crucifixion. The Crossing’s conductor, Donald Nally, commissioned seven responses to Buxtehude’s cantatas, by seven different composers. Each composer took a different body part, starting with the feet and moving through the knees and side to the face.
Small company, big undertaking
By the standards of a small choral group like The Crossing, Seven Responses was an undertaking that deserved Hollywood superlatives. In addition to being three years in the making, it included seven world premieres, seven Baroque masterpieces, and two instrumental ensembles playing instruments from two different periods. It was so long it had to be spread over two concerts presented on consecutive nights.
The two concerts were arranged so you could attend either one and still feel you’d had a complete experience. I couldn’t make it to the second night but I think I can base a judgment on my experience with the first. Seven Responses was one of the major events of the 2015-16 season. Nally overcame all the complications that could have sunk it.
Seven Responses succeeded, I think, because it was guided by a manager with a strong overall vision who kept a good grip on the whole project. I don’t think you can get seven new pieces this good merely by asking seven composers to write something. Somebody has to provide the leadership and drive that pull their best work out of all the participants.
Pleasure from pain
Buxtehude deserves some credit, too. His cantatas are beautiful and unexpectedly upbeat. The texts were written by a 13th century monk who viewed the suffering of Christ with gratitude and reverence. To the believing Christian, the agony of Christ is, after all, the sacrifice that saved mankind.
The texts selected by the composers ranged from words they wrote themselves to quotes from the Bible and the letters of saints. For me, the most moving words on the first night were composer Caroline Shaw’s use of some of the most famous phrases in American literature. With the words “Her beacon-hand beckons...give to me those yearning to breathe free,” she transformed the hands of Christ into the hand of the figure that has greeted generations of immigrants. Later, Shaw has the choir speak the statistics on internally displaced persons, country by country. “Sometimes data is the cruelest and most honest poetry,” Shaw wrote in her notes on her piece.
Other composers responded to Buxtehude with pieces on the suffering we inflict on the environment and the anguish of people who have developed bitter hearts.
The modern composers achieved their strongest effects through orchestration. The first response, David T. Little’s “dress in magic amulets dark, from My feet” was a long crescendo supported by a continuous drone. The opening of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s response to Buxtehude’s second cantata transformed the string players into a rhythm section, tapping their instruments with their bows. The choral writing tended to be more straightforward but the combination of voices and instruments was always effective.
You could see Nally’s attention to detail in the staging and lighting. The texts of the works were projected in supertitles, as usual, but Nally didn’t use a screen. Instead, he projected them on a narrow rectangular space in the middle of the religious symbolism that ornaments the front of the Episcopal cathedral.
The Baroque ensemble, Quicksilver, was lit with a golden glow. The contemporary musicians, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), received darker lighting that suggested a club setting. During most of the performance, Nally spotlighted the colorful figure of Christ at the top of the dome over the performance space.
Concerts that combine early music with new music aren’t common enough to be a trend, but they’re becoming a noteworthy addition to the music schedule. Matthew Glandorf’s Bach at Seven series frequently pairs a contemporary piece with a Bach cantata. Piffaro staged a joint concert with Orchestra 2001 three years ago, and their premiere of Kile Smith’s Vespers in 2008 scored one of their biggest triumphs. Seven Responses is a spectacular example of the wealth this dialogue of the eras can add to our cultural life.