Though their recent concerts and their annual Month of Moderns have been postponed, on May 22, Donald Nally and The Crossing released (on schedule) Carthage, an ambitious and beautiful recording of six works by Philadelphia composer James Primosch (b. 1956).
Three of these compositions have been commissioned over the past six years by Nally and his inestimable ensemble; three others are drawn from Primosch’s work over the past two decades. The recording opens with a commissioned work, Journey, a brief (six-minute) but affecting piece for the resonant and perfectly tuned men of the ensemble. The text is taken from a work by medieval mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)—“there is a journey you must take . . . and you can take nothing with you”—that sets up the questioning and questing spirituality of the works to follow.
Belief and doubt
The recording’s longest composition is Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus (the Bible’s “doubting Thomas,” who had to see the risen Christ in order to believe). The composition weaves the Latin Ordinary of the Mass texts (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei), chanted by a quartet of soloists, with the ensemble singing the words of American humanist poet Denise Levertov (1923-1997). Primosch floats the ethereal chant lines above his denser passages, often using them as ornaments. The work is centered around Levertov’s words in the Credo: “I believe and interrupt my belief with doubt. I doubt and interrupt my doubt with belief.”
The extended (20-plus minutes) composition has a repetitive quality (clearly the composer’s intent) that sometimes challenges the listener to stay engaged. When sung as part of the service, the ritual surrounding them gives the long Mass sections a welcome reflective aural space. The work ends, though, with a beautiful Agnus Dei that directly quotes that haunting melody from the Latin Requiem Mass, weaving its sonorities into a luminous choral aura that begs to “give us peace.”
The emotional center
Three short works on the recording are beautifully written and realized. Spiralling (composed by Primosch 20 years ago) is a lush, joyful setting of a short poem by e.e. cummings (1894-1962) that evokes the mysteries surrounding Jesus’s birth. In Two Arms of the Harbor, Primosch sets mystical words by revered American theologian Thomas Merton (1915-1968), twining them as the music contracts and expands. And in One with the Darkness, One with the Light, the composer sets text by Kentucky poet and essayist Wendell Berry (b. 1934)—whose words The Crossing has sung in their full-length A Native Hill—and lets them dictate the rise and fall of his music. Though only two minutes, this work is an apt coda to the recording, speaking movingly to the longing exposed in the text of the title composition.
Carthage—the emotional center of the recording—is an 11-minute setting of the prose of Pulitzer winner Marilynne Robinson (b. 1941) that is taken from her great 1980 work Housekeeping. She asks, “Imagine a Carthage sown with salt . . . What flowering would there be in such a garden?” In his liner notes, Primosch notes Robinson’s text combines “absence and promise, lack and fullness” that led him to write music vacillating between “sober reflection and wild joy.”
What they love to sing
Carthage is filled with plaintive moments, especially in a chorale-like section on “need can blossom into all the compensation it requires,” surely a touchstone for this time. And at the center of this affecting work is the composer’s plangent setting of the words “When does beauty break upon the tongue as sweet as when one longs to taste it?” Nally notes that Carthage, which he conducts with insightful care and which The Crossing performs, as expected, with pristine emotion, is “ironically, about absence,” ever present now, though not so when the ensemble joyfully recorded it.
Primosch is a highly lauded composer, winner of the 2020 Virgil Thomson Award and honored by grants and fellowships from institutions that include the American Academy of Arts and Letters, American Academy in Rome, National Endowment for the Arts, the Pew and Independence Foundations, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Widely commissioned—including by Philadelphia musical organizations—he has been on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania since 1998. In Carthage, The Crossing gives a tribute to the musical riches of this composer whose work they clearly love to sing.
What, When, Where
Carthage. By The Crossing, conducted by David Nally. Six unaccompanied choral works by James Primosch: Journey; Carthage; Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus; spiralling ecstatically; Two Arms of the Harbor; and One with the Darkness, One with the Light. Released May 22, 2020, by Navona Records. Get it here.