by Michael Caruso
Donald Nally and The Crossing brought their 2017 “Month of Moderns” celebration of contemporary choral music to a close with the world premiere of Michael Gordon’s “Anonymous Man.” The concert took place Saturday, July 1, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill before an audience that nearly packed the pews of its sanctuary. The attentive and enthusiastic crowd of lovers of new music heard one of the most substantially conceived and stunningly interpreted pieces of music for unaccompanied choir I’ve heard in more seasons than I can remember.
Gordon composed the music to a set of nine poems he wrote while recounting the life he lived on Desbrosses Street in New York City starting in the autumn of 1981 and continuing up to the present. The span of years includes his encounters with two particular homeless men, meeting his wife-to-be for the first time, the “terrible, beautiful morning” of September 11, 2001, plus a recounting of the day in April of 1865 when the coffin containing the body of the slain Abraham Lincoln traveled along Desbrosses
Street on its mournful journey from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, where the nation’s 16th president was buried.
One might safely assume that when a composer writes his own text, that text will turn out to be serviceable at best and more likely than not, clumsy and forgettable. Not so this time around. The series of remembrances that comprise the words sung by the choir in “Anonymous Man” are expressed with such delicate yet potent imagery that I couldn’t help reciting them myself at home simply to appreciate them as the works of poetry they truly are.
Though few in number, those words conjure up memories so revelatory of universal emotions that one almost feels that you, the hearer, have also encountered and experienced the events that inspired them. They cut so directly to the heart and soul that they miraculously become your memories, too.
If Gordon had responded to this set of compelling poems with choral music that simply set them effectively, even memorably, he would have accomplished a great deal. But he didn’t. What he did do was compose a series of separate yet spiritually linked movements of such revelation and sweeping elevation that I found myself taken back and then ushered through every one of the work’s encounters and incidents to the
point of conviction that they had become my memories as well as his.
“Anonymous Man” is voiced in a harmonic idiom that, while not quite definably tonal, nonetheless makes use of the major/minor tonal system as its initial foundation. Upon this secure base, a musical edifice of progression, development, resolution and final consummation is constructed.
The score is characterized by such airtight integrity that even on first hearing it all makes perfect sense from the first note to the last. Each movement boasts sonic tone painting so focused yet evocative that you almost feel as though you could touch the people and objects recalled. Each image is so powerfully seared into your mind that you almost believe you remember feeling them yourself.
Of course, none of this magic could ever have taken place had Nally and The Crossing not given “Anonymous Man” a rendition of riveting intensity coupled with ravishing beauty. There were moments Saturday evening when the choir’s singing seemed to soar so high that one worried about the safety of the church’s barreled ceiling and clear glass windows.
There were others when I was shocked that we could hear so clearly singing that was serenely whispered because it was so securely projected. Even during the most complex waves of counterpoint, The Crossing’s diction was so crystalline that every
line of Gordon’s jewel-like poetry delivered its meaning so forcefully, I almost wished I could turn away but knew that such an effort would be futile – and mistaken. Every note with every word behind it needed to be heard and taken in.
With each of their annual “Month of Moderns,” Donald Nally and The Crossing make Chestnut Hill the center of the choral universe. This time around, and with the help of Michael Gordon, they did it in spades.
You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michaelfirstname.lastname@example.org.