by Michael Caruso
Donald Nally and The Crossing wrapped up their “Month of Moderns” series of choral concerts of contemporary music Sunday afternoon, June 30, with a stellar performance given for an audience that packed the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill.
The oldest piece they sang was heard “impromptu” during the reception that followed the actual concert. Recalling their recent backing of the Rolling Stones at the Wells Fargo Center, Nally and The Crossing performed “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Not so for local lovers of modern choral music, since Nally and his choir gave more than even the most demanding audience could possibly have wanted or expected.
On first glance, one might suppose that contemporary composers of choral music have somehow avoided the curse of not being able to compose music that reaches and touches audiences. I can’t write that I’ve loved and adored every single work I’ve heard during my years of reviewing Crossing concerts, but I can write that every work I have heard displays a technical mastery, a stylistic conviction and an emotional impact that engenders admiration if not affection.
Nally seems to have an unshakable knack for giving each score a rendition that suits it. In works by Gabriel Jackson, Jonathan Dove, James MacMillan, John Cage and Santa Ratniece Sunday afternoon, Nally elicited a specific choral sound that matched the text of each piece. But let’s not forget that Rolling Stones number, which reminded me that I heard the band in their first American tour way back in 1965 in the long-gone Convention Center in West Philadelphia. What a hoot!
Once again Ghenady Meirson and his “Russian Opera Workshop” gave local opera lovers the chance to encounter portions of the repertoire rarely performed in Philadelphia. Last week’s set of performances that were the culmination of the month-long workshop brought Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Rachmaninoff’s “Francesca da Rimini” to the stage of the Academy of Vocal Arts’ theater in Center City.
Most local classical music lovers are familiar with most of the music for “Romeo and Juliet” without even knowing it because the composer recycled many of the themes from the single scene into his “Romeo and Juliet” Fantasy-Overture.
Rachmaninoff’s “Francesca da Rimini,” on the other hand, is probably unfamiliar to almost everyone because the early work, written when the composer was still in conservatory, is rarely performed, even in concert. Like that of the Tchaikovsky, the libretto of “Francesca” was written by Modeste Tchaikovsky, the brother of Peter. And like that for “Romeo and Juliet,” it’s simply appalling as a work of narrative/dramatic literature. Virtually nothing actually happens onstage. Everything is talked about, and nothing is more fatal to an opera than endless chatter.
All the same, “Francesca da Rimini” offers some glorious music from the pen of one of the most distinctive composers ever to come out of Russia. The music came alive last Wednesday evening, June 26, for an audience that nearly filled AVA’s Warden Theater. And for those who can’t get enough of Russian opera, Meirson will be leading AVA’s performances of Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades” during the school’s 2013-14 season. Visit www.avaopera.org for details.