June 19, 2019
The Crossing, led by Donald Nally, combines an embrace of the new, a social conscience and fearless technique.
PHILADELPHIA — “I hate pretty. I can’t stand listening to pretty.”
It was funny to hear this coming from Donald Nally, the conductor of the Crossing, a choir devoted to new music that makes some of the prettiest sounds you’ll ever hear.
Just listen to the opening of their recording of Lansing McLoskey’s “Zealot Canticles”: hovering yet full tones, like the gentle tolling of a celestial bell. (It won the 2019 Grammy Award for best choral performance.)
Or the final section of their recording of Gavin Bryars’s “The Fifth Century,” in which silvery female voices float above dark, velvety male ones, like bands of color in a Rothko painting. (It won the same award in 2018.)
On a recent Friday, rehearsing “Aniara” — the Crossing’s first theatrical production, which opens on Thursday for five performances at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia and travels to the Netherlands next month for the group’s European debut — the mass of voices was mellow and airy but never faceless or cold, each voice maintaining its individuality in the cloud.
“Aniara” will play five performances in Philadelphia before traveling to the Netherlands next month for the Crossing’s European debut.
“What I love is the absolute precision of pitch and rhythm, but also a warmth,” said Caroline Shaw, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who wrote the surging, radiant “To the Hands” for the Crossing and is at work on a major new commission for the group. “You can go to them with anything.”
Composers have done just that. Michael Gordon is gradually creating a work for them with the filmmaker Bill Morrison that will be performed over 24 hours. In “Animals,” Ted Hearne pushed the group’s voices into yelps, howls and hisses for a harrowing reflection on President Trump’s comments about undocumented immigrants: “These aren’t people. These are animals.”
That piece is emblematic of the ethos that has made the Crossing one of the country’s most exciting vocal ensembles: an embrace of the new, a social conscience and fearless technique, brought together in a marriage that transcends mere prettiness. A Crossing program is often politically charged — taking on issues like homelessness, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster and corporate personhood — without being didactic. The group is uninterested in, ahem, preaching to the choir, preferring works that are suggestive and ambiguous.
“Artists are not in the position to know the answers,” Mr. Nally said. “What do artists think they’re doing, affirming our own morality? It’s worthless. I really believe that. I think we should be presenting the facts and the questions, in an art context.”
The 90-minute “Aniara,” based on a melancholy epic poem by the Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, takes place on the last spaceflight off a ruined earth — a symbolic microcosm of a society in crisis amid environmental destruction. The score is by Robert Maggio, with a libretto by Dan Henriksson, of the Finnish theater company Klockriketeatern.
Joining the Crossing are two actors and a small instrumental ensemble on a catwalk strip of stage in a stylized sci-fi landscape of shifting bars of light. (The performances on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon will be live streamed at crossingchoirlive.com.)
Mr. Nally dreamed of becoming a saxophonist before switching to voice in college. Under Mr. Nally’s wry, caring direction at an early staging rehearsal at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, the Crossing’s longtime home, the group fine-tuned intonation and diction, making sure “evil” was pronounced “e-vull,” not “e-vill.” The singers practiced martial arts-like movements and rubbed smooth stones together to make a soft roar, like the sound of a distant ocean.
“It should feel ritualistic, but in a broken way,” Mr. Nally said of the singing at one point — immaculate, yet unpretty.
As a young man, Mr. Nally dreamed of becoming a classical saxophonist. But by his freshman year of college, he’d switched to voice, and was almost immediately conducting church choirs. In the mid-1990s, he was commissioned by Gian Carlo Menotti’s Spoleto Festival in Italy to form a festival choir, which became his laboratory for the development of a new sound.
“I had come up in this tradition of robust American singing, and that was never really in my ear,” he said. “It doesn’t work in contemporary music, because you can’t hear what the harmonies are. So I started to clean it out, and it started to make sense to me. I tried to find a way to make sounds that could hover, that didn’t have to move forward, that rejected 19th-century ideas about line and linearness.”
It was a sound with the calm purity of early-music performance, but also the agility and flexibility demanded by new music. Above all, it was clear.
And it eventually gave rise to the Crossing, at first a casual reunion of singers who’d loved working with one another, which had its first performance in the fall of 2005. Swiftly deciding to focus on new music, the group barely advertised itself but eagerly threw live recordings online.
It built an audience in Philadelphia, and word soon began to spread among musicians and composers that a formidable force had arrived: An adventurous, fiercely talented choir was looking not just to sing, but also create a whole new repertoire.
Claire Chase, then the artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, was looking for a singing group that could join in the premiere of James Dillon’s sprawling, thorny “Nine Rivers” when she heard an early Crossing recording.
“My jaw went on the floor,” Ms. Chase said. “It felt like a prayer had been answered.”
“Donald immediately wanted to do things,” she added. “He didn’t want to just talk about things. And, all of a sudden, all of this repertoire that we wanted to do, and couldn’t, was possible.”
Mr. Nally is, Ms. Chase said, “that unicorn artistic director, in that he’s as down to earth as he is visionary, and as driven as he is reflective and humble, and as curious as he is ambitious.”
The Crossing has commissioned dozens of works, with its ambitions growing with its stature. In 2016, the group unveiled “Seven Responses,” which asked composers to write 15-minute pieces inspired by the seven cantatas of Buxtehude’s 17th-century “Membra Jesu Nostri.” Ms. Chase’s ensemble and Quicksilver shared instrumental duties, a rare meeting of new- and early-music ensembles.
The Crossing’s annual budget has grown to over $1 million, and last year it hired a full-time executive director, Jonathan Bradley, as it plans to accelerate an already robust recording schedule. The group’s office is still in a closet at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. But, Mr. Bradley said with a smile as he pointed to a high shelf, “it’s a closet with a Grammy.”
Mr. Nally has pursued projects on his own. In New York, he served as music director for David Lang’s “The Mile-Long Opera,” for a thousand voices on the High Line, and recently prepared the choruses for the New York Philharmonic’s premieres of Mr. Lang’s “prisoner of the state” and Julia Wolfe’s “Fire in my mouth.” Since 2012, he has taught at Northwestern University.
But his passion remains the Crossing. A core part of the group has been together since the beginning, and its artistry emerges from that long immersion in one another’s lives and voices.
“That’s where the sound comes from,” he said. “It comes from a group of people who know each other really well and pay attention.”
It’s a pristine sound. But there’s also urgency in it; a sense of searching; always a reason behind the gorgeousness.
“I like beautiful,” Mr. Nally said. “But I can smell beauty for the sake of beautiful from a mile away, and I run.”
Thursday through Sunday at Christ Church Neighborhood House, Philadelphia; aniara.crossingchoir.org.
Zachary Woolfe has been the classical music editor since 2015. He was previously the opera critic of the New York Observer. @zwoolfe
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