This past Sunday, I had the good fortune to attend a performance by The Crossing, a professional, twenty-four voice choir from Philadelphia, directed by Donald Nally. It had been a while since I was last in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, and I am happy to see that the Concerts and Lectures department has stayed a progressive course by presenting ensembles such as Alarm Will Sound, ETHEL, Decoda, ACME and a museum-wide celebration of the music of John Zorn to name a few — and particularly since the appointment of the new General Manager of Concerts and Lectures, Limor Tomer.
Maestro Nally’s choir held itself high among these ensembles and displayed some incredible plumage on Sunday evening with a program of challenging works by Estonian composer Toivo Tulev (Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!), Wolfgang Rihm (The US premiere of Über die Linie III: Astralis) and the American, David Lang, in a performance of his Pulitzer Prize-winning cantata, The Little Match Girl Passion.
If I had to choose one word with which to draw a golden thread through Sunday’s performance, it would be, very simply: drama. I don’t necessarily mean the theatrical kind as the concert consistently adhered to standard concert hall conventions, with but a touch of creative lighting thrown in. As a composer, I often find that in our efforts to create something new when the subject matter pertains to such ancient and familiar forces as a cluster of voices, we often overlook the powerful element of drama in its innumerable forms. For instance, the anticipation in a period of silence as the listener tries to contemplate what may come next or decipher whether or not the piece has ended; the intrigue in dynamic extremes, especially in subtle quiet, and the dramatic influence even in a single note, regardless of the text. And how contradictory the suggestive power of carefully constructed dissonances, which can make a sudden consonance (i.e., a simple major triad) seem arresting and even ugly.
Each of the works performed exhibited such characteristics, having come together under the steady hands of three incredibly skilled composers. Tulev’s “Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!,” which was composed in honor of a state visit to Estonia by Queen Elizabeth II, came across as powerful and explosive, despite a rather steady and delicate tempo beneath Tulev’s unique and complex harmonic language. Rihm’s “Astralis” was static and mysterious, though it did seem to test the patience of some in the audience. As a result, I was sorry to see a number of seats clear out during the brief, five-minute intermission that preceded the main draw of the evening, David Lang’s “Little Match Girl Passion.”
Thanks to the ingenuity of these three great composers and The Crossing’s apparent dedication to the integrity each gentlemen’s works, I felt the evening’s program seemed a fitting metaphor for the feeling of transformation (though perhaps not in the same manner as the ill-fated Little Match Girl). The raw skill and musicianship that this ensemble exhibits bodes well for the future of professional American choirs, and therefore for the potential of great new choral works to find a life.