It’s foggy on this December night, driving to see the Philadelphia choral ensemble The Crossing, and along the road landmarks leap out of the mist and fade back just as quickly. You follow, not knowing what’s next; then lights glimmer, and you see where you are, though you may not know where you’ve been or what’s around the next bend. Listening to the ensemble’s intricate vocal work is like that.
The Crossing’s annual Christmas concert, candlelit and without an intermission, is not a carol fest. They sing only new music, the traditional Christmas repertoire replaced with contemporary works. This year, conductor Donald Nally led his ensemble in seven pieces of varying lengths, styles, and intensity that reflected on the mother's role in the Nativity and beyond.
The evening opened in Wilmington’s darkened and historic Christ Church, set in a glade just outside the city, as solo piano notes signaled the ensemble’s entrance. Glowing lights in hand, they came from all corners of the building, processing and crossing in circular patterns that were evocative if not necessarily understandable.
The Crossing has a distinctive sound, rich, balanced, and grounded, rising to a clear and piercing soprano sonority. In the way that conductor Robert Shaw loved the mezzo voice, Nally reveres his sopranos, and much of the Crossing’s work seems to be chosen or commissioned to elicit that contemporary, riveting, sometimes disconcerting high timbre. The ensemble often works a capella, and are known for their admirable focus, vocal skill, and pitch that never dips or wavers.
A carefully constructed concert
When Nally presents a program of shorter pieces, he highlights their connections. Here, improvised interstitial keyboard music or the soft chiming of bells signaled a pause between numbers, allowing the singers to take a brief hiatus, and managing the expectations of the audience; there was no applause permitted during this carefully constructed and sculpted performance.
The concert began with last spring by David Lang, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for the little match girl passion. The Crossing has recorded Lang’s works and has an affinity for his masterpieces of minimalism. With its soaring soprano line and chant-like refrain of “more time,” this opening work was reprised from the rear of the church to evocatively close the program. The ensemble also sang another Lang composition, the haunting where you go, a mesmeric work inspired by the biblical Book of Ruth, beautifully interpreted with limpid simplicity and deep longing.
Lang’s works bookended three larger pieces. Toivo Tulev's soaring And then in silence there with Me be only You, was sung in multiple languages. It was also filled with dramatic dynamic shifts as the ensemble moved in and out of its dissonance, ending with an eerily whispered repetition of the word “Gesú.” Edie Hill’s Cancion de el alma (a setting of “The Dark Night of the Soul” by the 16th-century mystic St. John of the Cross) featured rising and falling billows of choral sound.
This section of the concert also featured the world premiere of A way far home (for organ and chorus) by New York composer Aaron Helgeson. Based on poet Kazim Ali's translation of Marguerite Duras's L'amour, the highly dramatic work featured crashing “brutalist” tone clusters interspersed with sustained dissonance sliding in long cascades. Presented together, these three musically challenging works, though impeccably sung, were often strident in the intimate space.
The centerpiece of the program, and a highlight for the audience, was the area premiere of Kevin Puts's magnificent 25-minute choral cantata for unaccompanied voices, To Touch the Sky. Puts’s 2012 elegiac work sets the words of seven diverse women: Contemporary U.S. poet Marie Howe, 16th-century Indian writer Mirabai, Mother Teresa, Amy Lowell, Emily Brontë, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Christina Rossetti, Sappho, and the mystic Hildegard of Bingen. The composer’s choice of texts and his thrilling sensitivity to the varied authorial voices gave the work enormous power and import. Sections for the ensemble’s male singers added extra richness, and Puts composed an especially affecting setting of Bronte’s heartbreaking poem “At Castle Wood.”
As always, Mr. Nally conducted his impeccably prepared ensemble with great musicality, dignity, and deep respect for the music he interprets and creates. A concert by the Crossing journeys evocatively both into the depths and out to the glimmering edges of the choral world.
This concert will be broadcast on 90.1 WRTI-FM on at 4 pm Christmas Day, and the ensemble sings in January and February at venues in Cleveland, Boston, and Brooklyn.