On December 20 at the Church of the Holy Trinity, world-renowned chorus The Crossing celebrated the birth of an alleged messiah with The Crossing @ Christmas, a program centered on death, the inherent cruelty of the world, and impending ecological collapse. Somehow, I was bored 75 percent of the time.
The composers and artistic director share the majority of the blame. It’s not the singers’ fault that these pieces were utterly lifeless, both in a literal sense and an emotive, musical one.
The artists opened the evening with a dour procession. Black-clad singers threw a feather or two in the air, as piped-in birdsong played and candles were lit. It was a moody vibe, evoking the mythic, setting the scene. I put the feathers in my hair and awaited an interesting concert.
Instead, we got a steaming pile of liberal guilt. Spectral Spirits, a new piece by Minnesota composer Edie Hill, uses found text from ornithologists and lovers of nature like John James Audubon, Thoreau, and Holly Hughes, and sets it to blasé harmonies. These texts focus on extinct (or thought-to-be extinct) birds from America’s pre-colonial past, depicting both a time before their extinction and the extinction itself.
Punching at air
Despite having the makings of a totally metal choir concert, the texts selected are repetitive and represent a bit of a cop-out. Never, in 30 minutes tragedy porn, does Hill say why these birds are extinct: beyond vague gesturing at farmers, fashion, and logging, she mostly absolves the perpetrators of their guilt. Observe the following line: “Descending / three hundred at a time, in crayon-box flocks, they were shot / by farmers defending their crops—who could fault them?”
Me! I will fault them! I will blame them and their vision of manifest destiny which has pushed our planet to a sixth extinction event. By refusing to address the roots of this extinction—genocide, colonization, empire building at the behest and benefit of the owners of capital—Hill is mostly useless at understanding the horror she so limply describes. And while original sin and the notion of an inherent human folly are very much rooted in Christianity, these texts do nothing but depress.
Musically, it was just as hacky, with seventh chords, and lots of slightly twangy consonances alongside some passing dissonances, but never enough to really delve into the nature of what she is describing beyond a quickly diminishing shock value. The music was at its (passable) best in the few minutes where the singers really evoked the avian with whistles and lots of high notes warbling. And for some reason— perhaps the writing, perhaps the conducting—all the phrases felt very halted and unconnected to one another, as if the choir was just banging out a sight-reading.
The second piece of the evening, composer David Lang’s the little match girl passion, has more to say and a bit of a narrative. However, its minimalist melodic style wears out its welcome after approximately 10 minutes.
Where’s the passion?
The melody is only about four words long, receives little variation, and is heard approximately 100 times. It was at first a little haunting, and evocative of the negative head-space of trauma and poverty. By the end, it was just annoying.
The story’s structure is also repetitive, alternating between repentant abusive father and innocent daughter. It could be brought to life only by expert interpretation to really give emotion to the story of a girl whose poverty forces her to imagine heaven. However, the halting phrase structure is a problem in this piece too. The singers would literally stop after. Almost. Every. Single. Phrase.
All in all, it’s just another day in contemporary classical music: schlock performed by foremost musical talent. But at least I got a feather.
This concert was presented in collaboration with the Annenberg Center, where the author worked as a technician.
What, When, Where
The Crossing @ Christmas. Edie Hill, Spectral Spirits; David Lang, the little match girl passion. A presentation of the Annenberg Center and The Crossing. December 20, 2019 at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square; and December 22 at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. crossingchoir.org.
The Church of the Holy Trinity is wheelchair-accessible by way of a ramp in the breezeway between the Rittenhouse Hotel and the church. Alert venue staffers for assistance upon arrival. The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill is wheelchair-accessible.