Donald Nally (second in front row) and his choir, The Crossing, will be holding three concerts at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill this month, starting on June 9. (Photo by Becky Oehlers Photography)

by Michael Caruso

The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill will be the site of all three of The Crossing’s “Month of Moderns” concerts this season. Donald Nally, founder and director of the professional ensemble dedicated to contemporary choral music, has scheduled concerts for Saturday, June 9, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 17, at 4 p.m.; and Saturday, June 30, at 8 p.m.

Explaining the theme that connects all three programs, Nally said, “Like a mirrored reflection of last year’s ‘Month of Moderns,’ which focused on ‘The Other,’ this year we turn inward to a series of life journeys. We do not have to be ‘Home’ to question how complex, beautiful, and confounding a life’s journey may be.

“We have only to look at ourselves and then ask, in art, for some clarity. Odysseus had clarity when he asked his men to avoid ‘The Cattle of the Sun.’ But clarity for them – not unlike in our lives – was confounding: they lost themselves in hunger for the animal that has given, quietly, to us for millennia. When I was a child, I was fascinated by how sad cows’ eyes seemed. I wondered if they were lonely. I no longer wonder that; they are animals, like us, and of course they are. I thought we might make a season about that.”

Turning to the first of the three concerts, Nally said, “Rooted in the need to speak about our political environment, we usher in summer and our ‘Month of Moderns’ festival with a concert of thought-provoking, timely music for strings, percussion, piano and choir. In ‘a house,’ we visit a number of our ‘selves’ – the caring self and the needing self, the spiritual self and the political self.

“This special evening,” he continued, “focusing primarily on lesser-known works of David Lang along with a world premiere by Ellis Ludwig-Leone, is a study in what love – be it for another, a god, or for humanity – drives us to do or to be. Ellis’ work, entitled ‘Who What Where Why (and a few other questions),’ asks some fundamental questions about our daily lives; a kind of energized meditation on how we live. There is also a beautiful work of Peteris Vasks and an area premiere of a work about Abraham Lincoln by Alex Berko.”

Moving on to the festival’s second concert, Nally said, “We refine that theme in ‘Voyages,’ focusing on the most basic of our relationships, the love between two people. This concert is a rich and unusual event in which two composers, Benjamin C.S. Boyle and Robert Convery, set the same text, 25 year apart. Hart Crane’s ‘Voyages’ is a masterpiece of 20th century literature – an exhilarating and devastating journey through a passionate, obsessive and doomed intimacy we all crave and fear.

“Robert Convery’s elegiac 1994 work is a poignant, mesmerizing artistic achievement.” It was composed for Nally and premiered by the West Chester University Concerto Choir. “And, writing his fourth work for The Crossing, Philadelphia composer Benjamin C.S. Boyle probes the textures of strings and voices while pondering these haunting words.”

The Crossing, led by Donald Nally, during one of their performances. Local residents will get the chance to see them up close during their “Month of Moderns” concerts at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. (Photo by Becky Oehlers Photography)

Coming to the festival’s culmination, Nally added, “Finally, with ‘The Arc in the Sky,’ we remove any generality and focus on one person’s voyage, that of poet Robert Lax as he grapples with form, rhythm, music, meaning and spirituality. Philadelphia composer Kile Smith has written several uniquely idiomatic works for us, but we have long awaited this concert-length unaccompanied evening of music from him.

“Lax presents a fascinating aggregate of paradoxes: friend to Thomas Merton and the Beat poets; urbane yet reclusive; at times whimsical, at others blissful. He ultimately explored and helped establish literary minimalism, playing with form as if reinventing it – surely a seductive invitation to any composer.”

Concluding, Nally said, “Kile’s premiere, ‘The Arc in the Sky,’ is in three parts: Jazz, Praise, Arc. The journey is implied as our own season’s odyssey of reflection and exploration comes to a close.”

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Erik Meyer and the Choir of the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, presented their final Choral Evensong of the season Sunday, June 3, the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. With the parish’s rector, the Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, presiding and the Very Rev. Emily Richards delivering a heartfelt sermon, music director Meyer and his exemplary choristers performed music by Peter Christian, Gerald Near and Josef Rheinberger. Meyer, himself, opened and closed the service at the church’s superb pipe organ with music by Louis Vierne.

For those of us fortunate enough to have heard the Choir of St. Martin’s Church sing last month at Old Christ Church (Episcopal) at the inauguration of its new pipe, hearing Peter Christian’s settings of the “Preces” and “Reponses” a second time was a special treat. Of particular beauty is Christian’s choral setting of the “Our Father” text of the “Lord’s Prayer.” Though superficially rather simple and unadorned, it has the unsuspected power of a Southern hymn: quiet yet potent. St. Martin’s Choir sang it beautifully Sunday afternoon.

The service’s two principal works were Gerald Near’s “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis.” Both display an imaginative use of medieval modality replete with sensitively resolved dissonances appropriate for the sparing yet memorably jarring passages in each score’s respective texts. The women begin the “Magnificat,” most suitable for the words exclaimed by the Blessed Virgin Mary, while the men launch the “Nunc Dimittis,” altogether understandable for the words of St. Simeon. Both end with stunning climaxes on the text of the “Glory be to the Father.”

Conducting while accompanying at the organ, Meyer elicited impressive singing from his choir. Counterpoint and imitation were cleanly delineated, and diction was crystalline.

Rheinberger’s “Stay with us because it is evening” was the anthem at the Offertory. A truly lovely example of German Romanticism, it received a touching reading characterized by seamless legato and flawlessly shaped phrases.

Meyer prefaced the Evensong with a delicately voiced rendition of Vierne’s “Stele pour un enfant defunct” and brought it to a close with a brilliant interpretation of his “Carillon de Westminster.” St. Martin’s pipe organ may not be a huge instrument, but its pipes are immaculately blended and its size perfectly gauged for the English rural charm of the church’s Gothic Revival architecture.

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