by Michael Caruso

Donald Nally and The Crossing performed the second of three concerts in their “Month of Moderns” series Saturday evening, June 24, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Heard by an enthusiastic audience that nearly filled the church, the concert‘s program lived up to its name. Two of the three works were world premieres while the third was an American premiere. All three received renditions of such sterling mastery that they couldn’t help but enhance the choir’s already stellar international reputation.

The evening’s principal work was Gregory W. Brown’s “un/bodying/s,” composed in 2017 and here receiving its world premiere. Set to a poem by Todd Hearon that refers to the flooding of two small towns in Massachusetts to build a dam to provide fresh water for Boston, the work is divided into four movements.

The first, “The Meeting of the Waters,” offers discernible melodic motifs and accessible harmonic progressions, sometimes even recalling the tonality of a sea shanty. The second, “The Valley of Lost Names,” is voiced in full chords that project the poetry with supple expressivity. The choir’s men carry the principal thematic load, with the women’s parts spinning a decorative haze around it.

The third movement, “Questions for a Disincorporation Atlantis,” speaks in a harsher tone. Its texture is like that of a two-part invention by J.S. Bach, but one in which each voice is multi-layered into many melodic strands. Its shape is angular and its flavor sharp and tart. The final movement, “Poem with Any End,” sports a central melodic core much like the “cantus firmus” of medieval polyphony surrounded above and below by harmonic contrapuntal melodies. Its tone is sweet and its mood reflective, offering clouds of harmonies free from rhythmic propulsion that coalesce into a whispered unison at its conclusion.

Nally led The Crossing in a performance characterized by a broad swath of colors voiced in immaculate tuning, a seamless blend of individual voices.

Dai Fujikura’s “Zawazawa” in its American premiere opened the concert. Using Japanese onomatopoeia for its several texts, it speaks in waves of sounds that swell from soft to loud and back to soft again. Although there is no sense of traditional chord progressions, there’s nonetheless a feeling of ordered movement in which a growing and lessening momentum opens and closes into and out of harmonies of many individual notes and pitches. Until all of a sudden the music hits a glitch, much like when the stylus needle of an old LP player hit upon a scratch, and repeats a syllable over and over again. And then the music moves onward until its calm, gentle conclusion.

Nally and The Crossing performed “Zawazawa” with consummate intensity of colors and transparent delicacy of textures. The music moved forward with an admirable inevitability.

The concert’s second world premiere was Efstratios Minakakis’ “Crossings/Crossings’ Epigrams,” set to an original Greek text that recalls migrants fleeing from turmoil and things irretrievably lost. If its lyrics are, indeed, tragic and elegiac, Minakakis’ musical response was harsh to the point of repellent. The score required not so much singing as screeching. It delineated not so much drama as catastrophe. One felt not so much melancholy as madness. It stands as a testament to the first two decades of a century that has already surpassed the brutality of its predecessor, once considered to have been the most horrifically brutal in all of history. It’s been quite a journey since Marcel Proust wrote “Remembrance of Things Past” a century ago. Those “sessions of sweet, silent thought” have been replaced by harrowing nightmares.

For better or worse, Minakakis has translated them into a piece of choral music that received a shattering performance Saturday evening. The third installment of “Month of Moderns” is set for Saturday, July 1, 8 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Visit www.crossingchoir.org for more information.

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