Writers in song

Penn Live Arts presents The Crossing and PRISM Quartet

2 minute read
25 choir members, men and women posing together on an old brick patio in casual clothes outdoors, next to a stone building.
The Grammy-winning Crossing ensemble in 2021. (Photo by John C. Hawthorne.)

March is a busy month for The Crossing, Philadelphia’s beloved, avant-garde chamber choir. Fresh off a Grammy win for their album BORN: Music of Edie Hill and Michael Gilbertson, they make their debut with Philadelphia Orchestra on Thursday, March 30, in the world premiere of John Luther Adams’s Vespers of a Blessed Earth. They offered their own commissioned premiere on Friday, March 24, presenting Martin Bresnick’s Self-Portraits 1964, Unfinished, in collaboration with PRISM Quartet.

The event found The Crossing at a favorite venue: Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square. The beguilingly warm acoustics in the sanctuary suit perfectly the unique vocal stylings of this choir, which often sound refracted and deconstructed. Voices bounce around in every direction, creating a pleasant sense of disorientation, and requiring the listener to lean in and pay attention to each syllable in order to fully grasp the intention of conductor Donald Nally.

The space also suited the PRISM Quartet’s unique makeup—composed entirely of saxophones—highlighting the range of their instruments, from the lilting beauty of the soprano saxophone to the imposing grandeur of the baritone.

Escape into a world of books

Bresnick conceived Self-Portraits 1964, Unfinished, after reflecting on his young adulthood in New York City, when he worked in refuse collection to support his education. In a program note, he recalled taking breaks on rooftops around the city, escaping into the world of books that he kept in his pockets. The settings reflect the works of those authors: Herman Melville, James Joyce, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

There is a thematic unity among the six texts, which alternately chronicle personal and spiritual development and the human connection to the natural world. But within that larger frame, the styles generally converge. Bresnick could do more to recognize these differences in his composition. Although The Crossing and PRISM Quartet performed the 30-minute piece with virtuosity, it was hard to glean the differing power of each poem. After a while, the selections began running together.

In particular, the sexual awakening described in Joyce’s “Of Mortal Beauty” (excerpted from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) sounded wan and polite, with only the occasional saxophone wail to suggest the new vistas of carnal discovery. Melville’s “Where Lies the Final Harbor,” which flirts with suicidality, also demands more visceral music than it received here.

The sound of self-creation

The Crossing paired the Bresnick premiere with Bernd Franke’s On the Dignity of Man, a setting of a Renaissance text by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. The composition featured a push-and-pull between the saxophones and the vocal ensemble, which gave weight to the creation of self-identity embedded in the source text—the deep inner recesses represented by the music finding their expression in words. At a certain point, the language turns choppy and almost imperceptible, a fine representation of the struggle for actualization.

What, When, Where

Bernd Franke, On the Dignity of Man. Martin Bresnick, Self-Portraits 1964, Unfinished. Conducted by Donald Nally. The Crossing and PRISM Quartet. March 24, 2023, at Church of the Holy Trinity, 1904 Walnut Street, Philadelphia.


Church of the Holy Trinity is a wheelchair-accessible venue.

Masks are optional.

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