New music with a message

The Crossing presents Stacy Garrop’s In a House Besieged

3 minute read
A close-up on conductor Donald Nally, a bald white man, during a choir performance. He is smiling and wears a dark suitcoat.
A keen social and intellectual vision: conductor Donald Nally with the Crossing in 2018. (Photo by Du Ping Lo.)

Conductor Donald Nally has always been interested in programming choral music for the Crossing that is not only beautiful, but also socially relevant. Commissioned by the Cleveland Museum of Art, Chicago-based composer Stacy Garrop’s In a House Besieged manages to cover two significant contemporary topics at once: climate change, and the physical and cognitive challenges of aging in our increasingly isolated society.

The piece got its world premiere in a program from the Crossing at the Cleveland Museum of Art on March 25, 2022, and landed in Philly two days later for a performance at St. Mark’s Church, presented by Penn Live Arts.

Garrop has set the prose writing of Lydia Davis, grouping five selections from her short stories in a narrative that reveals the slow deterioration of an old woman’s mind. At the same time, the composer addresses the menaces of mankind’s indifference to nature’s ineffable powers, specifically, the receding shoreline, as the sea engulfs the manmade world. The bold and sensitive playing of organist Scott Dettra, at the keyboard of the grand St. Mark’s instrument, seemed to mimic the waves of brackish water relentlessly washing over the land.

This serves as a potent metaphor for mental erosion. Garrop’s music, scored for chorus and organ, is marked by a dramatic ebb and flow, reflecting the run-on sentences of the text that in turn mirror the stream of consciousness of a mind struggling for an elusive cohesion of thought. The sections are linked by a brief, haunting leitmotif, depicting the ravages of dementia, as the subject struggles to recall how to pronounce a common word, in this case, “woman.”

McLoskey and Levine

The program opener, The Memory of Rain, Lansing McLoskey’s sensitive setting of the poetry of the late Philip Levine (premiered by the Crossing in 2010), is even more timely, although Nally could not have predicted the current headlines when he planned this concert many months ago. Levine, who was the American poet laureate during the Obama presidency, wrote Clouds, the source of McLoskey’s text, in 1979, and it is almost certainly imbued with the then-recent acrid memories of Vietnam. Still, it was quite jarring to hear the voices sing “the jet fighters lift above the flat roofs,” and “…the breath of lies. In their great silent pockets, they carry off all of our dead.” It was a depressing reminder that the horrors of the current war in Ukraine, though they have shocked us away from our thin veneer of civilized intercourse, are nothing new to humanity.

Sensuality and vision

Sandwiched in between these dark aural images was Arvo Pärt’s 2001 setting of the Latin hymn Salve Regina. The music is typical of the famously dour, retrograde style of the Estonian composer, inspired by Gregorian chant. A brooding opening gives way to a gently lilting pace, glowing with the rich harmonies that have made Pärt’s music so popular. But there is also a kind of weary monotony at play here, due to a generally narrow dynamic and pitch range, save for a couple of brief outbursts.

If Pärt’s music has a tendency to somnolence, it was erased by the magnificent singing of the Crossing. This chamber chorus always sings like a perfectly tuned orchestra, not merely pitch perfect, but delicately balanced, resulting in gossamer textures. Combining this vocal sensuality with Nally’s keen social and intellectual vision nearly always make for performances that haunt the mind’s ear for some time. This concert was no exception.

What, When, Where

In a House Besieged. Stacy Garrop; In a House Besieged. Lansing McLoskey; The Memory of Rain. Arvo Pärt; Salve Regina. Conducted by Donald Nally. Scott Dettra; organ. The Crossing presented by Penn Live Arts. $35. March 27, 2022, at St. Mark’s Church, 1625 Locust Street, Philadelphia.


St. Mark's Church is accessible to those using wheelchairs via the west doors that open onto St. Mark's Garden. The main entrance facing Locust Street is not wheelchair accessible.

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