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Philadelphia’s three-time Grammy-winning ensemble, The Crossing, opened its season with three premieres. The ensemble was most recently lauded by The New York Times as “America’s most interesting choir,” which indeed they are. Crickets in Our Backyard was a whimsical title for a concert that was anything but whimsical. Its extended, serious works were all premieres (the ensemble’s modus operandi). One was designated an “indoor premiere,” heard outdoors in June 2021, and the others were new commissions.
The concert opened with At Which Point by Chinese-born composer Wang Lu (a professor at Brown), who set poems by Forrest Gander from Be With, his Pulitzer-winning 2018 collection. At Which Point premiered in the plein air setting of Germantown’s Awbury Arboretum in 2021. There, with individually amplified singers perched on hills and hidden among trees, the work’s dense sonic texture was pixilated by air and space and made more easily comprehensible than in the vibrant acoustics of Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church. Indoors, both textual and wordless singing (trilling, throat-singing, swooping arcs) blended into blocks of sound, and the work’s colorful writing became mesmeric (possibly the composer’s intent), all of one piece, a sonic cloth whose woven threads became fuzzy. The work ended with a solo voice rising out of the choir, singing “everywhere,” possibly the most effective moment.
Crickets were actually chirping outside the church as the second work began, the four-movement Singsong by Cuban-born composer Tania León, a Pulitzer Prize-winner renowned for both large-scale and chamber works. León set poems by Rita Dove, our first Black US Poet Laureate (1993-95). Dove is also a Pulitzer winner and recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 2023 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. This artistic confluence made for a majestic and soulful work.
Singsong was composed for unaccompanied ensemble and flute, here the very fine Claire Chase, alternating choral sections with solo instrumental passages. León set three sections to Dove’s Playlist from the Apocalypse (a New York Times Top Book for 2021), with the work’s title poem from her Collected Poems: 1974-2002. The first two movements have long descriptive titles: “The Spring Cricket Considers the Question of Negritude” and “The Spring Cricket Repudiates His Parable of Negritude.” Using images of children catching fireflies at night, Dove writes a haunting parable of slavery and Black singing. The final two movements are more lyrical: “Scarf,” a short evocation of love, and “Singsong,” an evocation of childhood.
The composer utilizes both jazz-inspired and lyrical vocal rhythms to inform Dove’s text in a gorgeous match of words and music, creating lush or pulsing rhythms as the words required. In “Scarf,” the breathy flute echoed the choir’s silken texture, the work’s most beautiful moment. But the repetitive extended instrumental passages—played by Chase with physicality, glee, and virtuosic aplomb—became predictable after a while, and the pairing was most effective when (in the fourth movement) the instrument merged with the singers.
It seemed that after Singsong, there would be no way to extend the program’s beauty, but the final composition, Infinite Body, did just that. Here, composer Ayanna Woods set her own words in another four-movement piece. Woods is a Grammy-nominated composer, performer, bassist, and bandleader whose work spans musical genres. Chicago-based, she was The Crossing’s inaugural resident composer (2022-23), and Infinite Body showed an intimate knowledge of the ensemble.
The work, which Woods describes as a “shifting sonic kaleidoscope,” opened with “Infinite Growth,” a chorale-like setting of the words “growing, rising, going round” from which solos rose and fell, ending with a repeated “all, all, all.” The second movement, “One Body,” used relentless rhythmic repetition laced with ironic humor to portray the inexorable demands that technology makes of us. “Do Be Do” began with a jaunty take-off on backup singing syllables or commercial jingles and moved to a lyrical evocation of the natural world. The work closed with “Golden Hour,” filled with luscious, long, melismatic harmonies.
Woods ably joined new-age musical sensibilities with traditional choral harmonies in a fresh and moving way. Her writing often anticipates an expected musical resolution, but the composer then takes a different path, arriving at an altogether unexpected but satisfying tonality. The work’s considerable emotional impact was enhanced by background lighting that shifted colors with each movement, ending with a rich gold.
A respectful reminder
However, there were several glitches in the evening, having nothing to do with its artistry. Given the reputations of all involved, I missed having any biographical information about these accomplished composers and poets and the flute soloist, but more disconcerting were disruptions (all too frequent these days) that impacted musicians and audience alike.
A cell phone went off, then a watch alarm, and finally, a hearing aid created a long, distractingly insistent whine. Nally stopped the concert midway and walked down the center aisle to locate and gracefully solve the problem. My companion (an accomplished musician) echoed many by saying that since the pandemic, attendees may need to be reminded of the respect owed to both performers and their audiences.
Seemingly unfazed by these interruptions, The Crossing sang throughout with their accustomed but still-astonishing unity of pitch, intonation, and intention, each choral section presenting as one voice. And Nally continues to guide his ensemble through these tremendously difficult new works with clarity and superb musicianship.
Above: The Crossing choir and composer Ayanna Woods in a recent recording session. (Photograph by Kevin Vondrak.)
What, When, Where
Crickets in Our Backyard. Tania León, Singsong; Wang Lu, At Which Point; and Ayanna Woods, Infinite Body. Conducted by Donald Nally. Claire Chase; flute. The Crossing. Poetry by Rita Dove, Forrest Gander, and Ayanna Woods. September 16, 2023, at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave, Philadelphia. crossingchoir.org
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill is wheelchair-accessible. The Crossing provided both printed programs and projected text.
Masks were not required for the concert.
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