by Pete Mazzaccaro
If you grabbed the New York Times on Monday morning, you may have noticed that the bottom center of the page contained a photo of a woman in a black dress, a megaphone to her lips, shins deep in New York City’s Lincoln Center reflecting pool. You may not have noticed that the woman was Chestnut Hill resident Rebecca Hoke, a member of the Chestnut Hill-based contemporary choir “The Crossing.”
The Crossing, it turns out, had traveled to Lincoln Center to take part in an outdoor performance of a new piece by Pulitzer Prize winning contemporary composer John Luther Adams called “Sila: The Breath of the World.”
For those who know The Crossing and its work, it might not come as a surprise to find the choir making a big splash at one of the most well-known performance spots on the planet. The choir has made a name for itself as a leading choral group of professional singers dedicated to contemporary music.
The choir’s director, Donald Nally, told the Local in an interview last week that only one other choir, San Francisco’s Volti, does what The Crossing does.
Nally, a professor of choral performance at Northwestern University (he splits his time between Chicago and Philadelphia), said The Crossing’s involvement in Adams’ piece was the result of having been in talks with the composer for some time about commissioning the work. The Crossing works with contemporary composers and commissions work that it then performs.
Adams asked The Crossing to be involved, and, of course, Nally was excited to participate. It was a different piece than the choir was used to. It was outdoors in a large city with parts for five ensembles: voice, string, brass, woodwind and percussion.
Nally said the challenge in rehearsing the piece was that each group prepared on its own.
“The different part of the performance was that each group involved rehearsed by itself,” he said. “Then we all came together and said, ‘Here we go.’”
Performing while standing in water was also a new experience.
“Being in the reflecting pool was beautiful,” Nally said. “It was a lot of fun. There were many last-minute tweaks to the performance. We had megaphones and were originally only going to use them during a section of the performance in which everyone stops to breathe, but we decided the megaphones added something to the whole piece. It worked out beautifully.”
Nally said he could not recall if The Crossing had ever before performed outdoors. He said, however, that the experience was terrific, noting that the background noise of New York City added to the experience.
The July 25 performance was described by The New York Times music writer Anthony Tommasini as follows:
“What mattered on Friday was the way the plaza became a humming mass of subdued, flowing sounds. Soft rolled timpani and drum riffs provided rumbling aural support, almost never marking the passage of time with pulsing beats. At first, the soft sounds of voices and instruments were hard to distinguish. Was that a high pianissimo soprano tone or a soft harmonic played by a distant trumpet perched on the lawn? But as the music evolved, it gained in body and density, though not exactly volume. Choirs of reedy woodwinds and delicate, sometimes scratchy string sounds permeated the space. At times ‘Sila’ was like music depicting continental drift. Halfway through, melodic fragments seemed to emerge, though these were often just instruments rising up the harmonic series.”
Nally said that there is a chance the piece might soon be reprised at a new music center due to open next year at Northwestern University.
“The piece is so compelling,” Nally said of “Sila.” “We are interested in doing it at Northwestern in the Fall of 2015 at the new facility, which will have this wonderful lawn space that would be perfect for the piece.”
In the meantime, The Crossing continues to enjoy it’s Chestnut Hill home base at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church.
“We feel so fortunate to have Chestnut Hill Presbyterian as our home,” Nally said. “They’ve really been amazing. They’ve made their building ours.”