by Micahel Caruso

Donald Nally and The Crossing presented their annual “The Crossing @ Christmas” choral concert Dec. 20, 21 and 22. The first performance took place at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia; the second was sung in the Fuentiduena Chapel of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters in New York City; for the final rendition of the trio, Nally and The Crossing returned to their home base, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill.

Performing for an audience that virtually backed the Chestnut Hill Church, Nally and the two-time Grammy Award-winning Crossing gave the commissioned world premiere of Edie Hill’s “Spectral Spirits.” After intermission, the choir sang David Lang’s “the little match girl passion,” which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008.

The texts of “Spectral Spirits” highlight the plight of the world’s bird population, in particular those species that have gone extinct in recent generations. Their tragic demise is projected as not merely the disappearance of certain birds and of the loss of the songs they had sung for thousands of years. Rather, the poetry of the words and the music they inspired is put forward as a dire warning to all human beings to appreciate every aspect of the living world in which we exist – and to listen to the expression of that world before everything goes silent.

Edie Hill’s choral writing in “Spectral Spirits” is expert. She employs a smoothly unfolding harmonic language that is beautifully voiced between the highest and lowest ranges of the choristers, evoking the feel of the skies against which the flocks of birds fly and the trees upon which they sing their threatened songs.

Nally elicited flawless singing from The Crossing Sunday afternoon. A spatial range of dynamics and vast palette of colors were enlisted to go far beyond merely projecting the score’s texts so as to conjure up the fragile universe of birds on the cusp of being slaughtered out of the world in which we live.

David Lang’s “the little match girl passion” is a much more substantial and affecting work. Based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, with additional words by H.P Paull and Picander, plus excerpts from the Gospel of St. Matthew in the New Testament, it details the gruesome death from poverty of “the little match girl” during the cold of wintertime.

Lang’s music for each of its 15 movements was determined by the words. “Come, daughter” offers cascades of phrases repeated again and again to establish a full texture of poignant tones. “It was terribly cold” is set in short, clipped lines. “Dearest heart” produces a virtual wall of sound while “In an old apron” reprises the sound world of the second movement.

“Penance and remorse” is dense and dark. “Lights were shining” is set as a dialogue while “Patience, patience!” offers up that singular word. “Ah! perhaps” offers insistent, pointed terror while “Have mercy, my God” is set in plaintive lines of elongated dissonances.

“the little match girl passion” is a work of our time. Nally and The Crossing sang it with the passion of their contemporary conviction secure in the technical immaculacy for which the choir is internationally acclaimed as one of the finest choral ensembles in the world.

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