by Michael Caruso
Donald Nally and The Crossing continued their “Month of Moderns” festival of choral music with their second concert, which was performed Sunday, June 17, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The previous weekend’s program featured six very different works of contemporary choral music. This time around, the program featured two settings of Hart Crane’s poem, “Voyages.”
Both settings were commissioned works. Donald Nally commissioned Robert Convery to compose his “Voyages” in 1994 for West Chester University when Nally was teaching and conducting there. Benjamin C.S. Boyle’s version was commissioned for The Crossing and received its world premiere Sunday afternoon. Whereas the former is sung without accompaniment, the latter features accompaniment by an ensemble of violins, violas, cellos and contrabass.
Although the printed program listed the Boyle preceding the Convery, Nally decided to switch the order. Mirroring his remarkable ability to discover and inspire stunningly beautiful contemporary choral music almost without fail, Nally’s instincts as an arranger of programs was proven to be no less admirable. The earlier work opened the concert with melting lyricism while the later opus offered a startlingly broad spectrum of sounds that elicited a plethora of listener emotions.
Convery’s “Voyages” is a masterpiece of seamless phrases supported by harmonies that flow in an unbroken stream of unfolding development. With a hint of medieval modality sparked by the parallel lines of organum, Convery varied the texture of the choral singing through the balanced use of unison, hymn-like chorales and flexible counterpoint.
Dissonances resolve with exquisite precision through delicately voiced thrusts that turn into sweet lyricism. Passages evocative of simple folksongs often balance moments of troubled darkness. Yet it all comes together in a satisfying conclusion.
Nally and The Crossing gave Convery’s “Voyages” a splendid reading Sunday afternoon before an audience that nearly filled the main sanctuary of Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church. Soft singing was hushed yet securely sustained while the choir’s loud singing was never shrill or pushed beyond pristine tuning.
Most importantly, Nally invested his interpretation and therefore The Crossing’s singing with a deeply felt understanding of both Crane’s poetry and Convery’s musical delineation of it. The composer was in attendance to receive the audience’s heartfelt appreciation for a great work of musical beauty.
Boyle’s setting was by nature more dramatic and broadly conceived. Right from the opening measures, the strings set a mood of astringent tension that was only relaxed by the choir’s flawless handling of his edgy dissonances. Through a sparing use of “sound effects,” the strings continued to set the aural stage upon which the choir delivered the composer’s intense manifestation of Crane’s evocative and revelatory poetry.
The score features three solos – mezzo, tenor and baritone – that are expertly integrated into the choral texture, which itself shifts convincingly from straightforward choral harmony to full-blown polyphony and back again.
Once more, Nally led a performance that was definitive. The singing and playing ran the gamut of tones and timbres, of soft and loud dynamics. No matter how widely spaced Boyle voiced the choral parts, The Crossing sang them with immaculate tuning and peerless blend. The performance flowed from start to finish with a cumulative sense of development that brooked no interference until its mission had been accomplished and the final cadence rendered.
And once again, the composer was in attendance to receive the audience’s appreciation for the remarkable beauty of yet another work of contemporary choral music commissioned by Donald Nally.
The Crossing announced its 2018-19 season at Sunday’s concert. Its details are available at www.crossingchoir.org. The final installment of “Month of Moderns” is scheduled for Saturday, June 30, 8 p.m., in the Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church. A single work, Kile Smith’s “The Arc in the Sky,” will be performed in its world premiere.