by Michael Caruso
Donald Nally and The Crossing, the Chestnut Hill-based chamber choir he founded and directs, joined forces with the International Contemporary Music Ensemble and the period instruments ensemble Quicksilver for a two-night concert experience Friday and Saturday, June 24 and 25. The double-barreled event took place in the Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Savior in West Philadelphia before an audience that filled a good portion of its impressive expanse both evenings.
The concert’s title was “Seven Responses.” Seven new works were composed “in response” to “Membra Jesu nostri” (The Limbs of Our Jesus), a series of seven cantatas written in 1680 by the Danish-German mid-baroque composer, Dietrich Buxtehude. A seminal predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach in the world of northern German Lutheran Church music, the texts of the cantatas of “Membra Jesu nostri” focus on the physical sufferings of seven particular parts of the body of Jesus Christ as he hung on the cross on Calvary.
The seven new scores were commissioned by a variety of donors. Two, David Little’s “dress in magic amulets, dark, from My feet” and Santa Ratniece’s “My soul will sink into you,” were commissioned specifically for The Crossing by West Mt. Airy’s Eric Owens. The internationally acclaimed operatic bass-baritone, who attended both Settlement Music School and the Curtis Institute of Music, was recently named the visiting artist at the Peabody Conservatory of Music of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, my alma mater.
For those accustomed to thinking of Nally and The Crossing solely in terms of contemporary choral music, the notion of their performing music from the late 17th century may come as a startling surprise. And yet, the qualities demanded by both repertoires are not dissimilar. Limited vibrato, absolute purity of pitch, transparency of texture, a broad swath of dynamics, rhythmic flexibility and focused phrasing are required by both baroque and modern music. Nally has always viewed contemporary choral music as the most recent installment in the centuries-old continuum of classical choral music.
Hearing first the seven scores composed by Buxtehude and then those written by the seven contemporary composers offered both sides of the coin in their best aural setting. One first heard Buxtehude closing the Renaissance chapter of the narrative of classical music and opening the next chapter featuring the Baroque. The story was then resumed in the 21st century’s chapter, penned by seven living musicians. Hearing how each contemporary composer dealt with texts related to the heightened piety of Buxtehude’s texts, in relation to how the baroque master had done so with such exceptional beauty and passion, was enlightening.
The seven movements of “Membra Jesu nostri” are “Ad pedes” (To the feet), “Ad genua” (To the knees), “Ad manus” (To the hands), “Ad latus” (To the sides), “Ad pectus” (To the breast), “Ad cor” (To the heart) and “Ad faciem” (To the face). In the original by Buxtehude, each individual cantata features an opening sonata, a concerto, several arias, a reprised concerto and a closing concerto. Although Nally occasionally chose tempi that were too slow for my tastes, the singing of The Crossing and the playing of Quicksilver were exceptionally evocative and moving.
The seven new scores are all more freely constructed in response to the shape of the poetry used by the music, sometimes written by the composer himself or herself. All were performed with the benefit of lightning that varied the colors of the famous Edwin Howland Blashfield mural on the semi-dome above the Cathedral’s chancel. As the moods of the texts and music changed so, too, changed the tints and shades of the lighting.
Of the new pieces, I found the pair commissioned by Eric Owens – David Little’s “dress in magic amulets, dark, from My feet” in response to “Ad pedes” and Santa Ratniece’s “My soul will sink into you” in response to “Ad faciem” – the most compelling, perhaps because the texts of both works focused directly on the task at hand, the physical agony of the crucifixion. The former’s words, written by the composer, deal with the nails and their magical powers; the latter employs letters written by St. Clare of Assisi, one of the first followers of St. Francis of Assisi and the founder of an order of nuns known as the Poor Clares.
The resulting music achieves a remarkable degree of expressivity and transcendence. Little’s work sets a tone of intense meditation yet spacious contemplation through harmonic textures and lyrical gestures that floated out from the chorus and filled the Cathedral’s wide-open spaces. Ratniece’s score speaks more inwardly to the suffering face of Christ on the cross and our own gazing into eternity through the prism of our own lives. With soaring melodies, bracing harmonies and potent interjections, both scores leave a lasting impression.
Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Ad Genua/To the Knees” was undermined by her penchant for mindlessly repeating short snatches of the text with mind-numbing repetitions of the music. In “I come near you,” Hans Thomalla makes effective use of widely and wildly spaced major and minor triads heard in unexpected progressions. Lewis Spratlan and librettist Paul Cane created a searing two-part drama in “Common Ground” that broadened the scope of “To the breast” to encompass the degradation of the environment – God’s creation, after all.
Least efficacious were Caroline Shaw’s “To the hands” and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s “Ad cor” (To the heart), perhaps because both relied so heavily on the dated and worn out technique of having either the singers or a player speak rather than sing. If I want a speech, I’ll go to the theater; if I go to a concert, I want to hear music.
Nally led The Crossing in the contemporary works with expert precision and inspired musicality. Among the singers familiar to Chestnut Hillers were sopranos Julie Bishop and Rebecca Siler (soloists at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill), soprano Rebecca Myers (who regularly sings at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill) and bass Daniel Spratlan, director of music at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church, The Crossing’s home base.
The Crossing will return to Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church for “Jeff Quartets,” dedicated to the memory of founding member Jeffrey Dinsmore, Friday, July 8, at 8 p.m.
For more information visit www.crossingchoir.com.