Times change, mastery remains

The Crossing presents Returning: coming home to song

4 minute read
A group shot of 25 smiling people who make up The Crossing choir, standing together outside next to a stone building.
A joyous return to live music: The Crossing in 2021. (Photo by John C Hawthorne.)

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Donald Nally and Philadelphia’s renowned choir the Crossing joyously returned to live performance in an emotionally charged concert titled Returning: coming home to song.

The ensemble is noted for its commissions (more than 120), and most concerts feature premieres. But here Nally looked back in an intricate program weaving excerpts from previous commissions with short pieces meaningful to the company. Times may have changed since The Crossing last sang at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, its home venue, but its intensity and thrilling vocal mastery remain.

Woods and The Forest

As the evening opened, two men held a swath of fabric aloft, creating the screen for an excerpt of the choir’s 2020 film The Forest, afterward dramatically folding it into a triangular memorial flag. Entering singers echoed themselves in the film as they moved seamlessly into Shift by Ayanna Woods (b. 1992), the evening’s first work.

Woods expanded this 2020 premiere for the company’s June 2021 outdoor Month of Moderns. Fittingly for this haunted anniversary, the first movement of Shift features blocks of sound rising out of luminous harmonies, which Woods considers monuments “bursting through the cracks in the stories you tell, America.” The layered work ends with “Bound,” an urgent yet luminous evocation of ancestors.

Next were two movements from Travel Guide to Nicaragua, with words and music by Michael Gordon (b. 1956), a major 2020 premiere that was cancelled when the pandemic began. Scored for choir and cello (Tommy Mesa), its beautiful fuguelike first section “After my father was left in Poland” is redolent with Eastern European overtones and heartbreaking poetics of loss. In the second movement, “There are two stories to the story,” women’s voices and the plaintive cello slide in lyrical but vaguely sinister repetitions of the title phrase, the only text.

Italy and Carthage

Nally and the ensemble then looked back to their 2007 residency in Spoleto, Italy with the majestic, haunting Funeral Ikos (1981) by John Tavener (1944-2013). The work’s six heavily textual verses from the Orthodox service for the burial of priests each detail the end of life and culminate in a glorious “Alleluia.” This is a classic from a great choral master, thrillingly centered in the evening’s repertoire.

From the Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus (2014) by James Primosch (1956-2021) the choir sang the Gloria and Agnus Dei. Commissioned in 2014, it was featured on the ensemble’s 2020 Grammy-nominated album Carthage. Primosch skillfully interweaves Latin Mass text with magnificent poetry by Denise Levertov (1923-1997) for joyous bursts of sound in the Gloria and plaintive plainsong in the Agnus Dei.

An aerial view from the upper rear of a church, people crowded in all of the pews listening to a choir sing up front.
The Crossing performs at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in 2018. (Photo by Luke Carpenter.)

The Primosch movements were unexpectedly bisected, as the choir moved up to the loft for a British cathedral anthem by C.H.H Parry (1848-1918). Returning to its roots as a church choir conducted by Nally, the ensemble sang "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind" (1888), a Victorian work with majestic organ writing perfectly suited to the church’s Mander organ (played by Scott Dettra), addressing the muscular piece with an elegance and grace that illuminated its construction.

Absence, presence, and rhythm

In his preconcert talk, composer Michael Gilbertson (b. 1987) spoke about the concert’s title work, Returning, a 20-minute 2015 composition in two movements. Grounded by complex text from poet Kai Hoffman-Krull (b. 1985) based on the biblical story of Jonathan and David, the composer explores absence and presence, opening with quiet vocalizing and rising to musical and emotional intensity. Gilbertson’s melodic strength coupled with delicate, selective use of dissonance creates a distinctive compositional vocabulary, and the ensemble recorded Returning in August for future release.

The final work on the program, "Earth Teach Me Quiet" (2013), is a magical litany by Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977) that the company first performed in 2017. The Latvian composer set heartfelt words of a Ute (North American) prayer seeking grace from the rhythms of nature. Soulful marimba accompaniment (by Ted Babcock) sits in the choir’s midvocal register, magically melding the vocal and instrumental lines. The Crossing’s interpretation was lauded by The New York Times as one of the "25 Best Classical Tracks of 2020."

A rousing finish

Perhaps because of the heightened emotion of returning live, Nally employed dramatic elements (including the flag folding) to enhance the music with mixed success. To withhold applause between selections, he wrote uncredited interstitial music that was puzzling at first. Lights were dimmed and raised throughout, mandating an emotional response from the audience that they surely would have felt naturally due to the beauty, strength, and interpretation of these works.

Masks were required for attendees and nonsinging staff, and though the event required proof of vaccination, being in the large (prepandemic sized) audience required an adjustment from accustomed distancing and smaller crowds. And in another departure from its custom, the choir sang an encore from the organ gallery—Parry’s stirring anthem "I Was Glad" (1902)—bringing the clearly delighted crowd to its feet.

What, When, Where

Returning: coming home to song. Ayanna Woods, Shift; Michael Gordon, Travel Guide to Nicaragua; John Tavener, Funeral Ikos; James Primosch, Gloria and Agnus Dei from Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus; C.H.H. Parry, "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind" and "I Was Glad"; Michael Gilbertson, Returning; and Ēriks Ešenvalds, "Earth Teach Me Quiet." Conducted by Donald Nally. Ted Babcock, marimba; Scott Dettra, organ; John Grecia, keyboards; and Tommy Mesa, cello. The Crossing. September 11, 2021, at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. www.crossingchoir.org

Masks and proof of vaccination were required for entry to both the pre-event talk and concert.


The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill is a wheelchair-accessible venue. For this concert, the Crossing provided both printed programs and projected titles and text.

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