"To what extent Donald Nally’s life philosophy has materially shaped his music-making and musical choices cannot be known, but there is no denying the skill of the choir with which he has recorded here, and the quality of the music he chooses to perform. The Crossing, a professional choir based in Philadelphia, is as fine a chamber chorus as will be found anywhere. The tone is fairly bright in the style of many English choirs, with a tightly controlled, even nonexistent, vibrato; the result is a purity of sound and transparency of texture that often has the cool beauty of cut crystal. At other times, and especially in the warmer acoustic of the church used for the Christmas CD, the sound takes on an incandescent glow. The singing isRead more almost entirely a cappella. The precision of intonation, rhythm, balance, and diction is unerring, even in—no, especially in—works that would simply be beyond any but the most gifted groups of singers. Nally, a choral trainer of substantial reputation, acknowledges his good fortune during the interview in a statement both disarmingly modest and plainly honest. He has, in The Crossing, a collection of singing talent that would be the delight of any choral conductor. These are exceptional musicians who have joined together in a remarkable joint venture. Their good fortune is that Nally clearly knows what to do with the resources at his disposal.
All of the music recorded here—and in fact the choir’s entire repertoire—is contemporary. Much of it is quite beautiful by any standard, and there is hardly a measure of it that is not compelling, or mesmerizing, or thought-provoking, or challenging in the best sense of that word. Nally describes it as postmodern, a term sometimes associated with an aesthetic of cheeky reactionism, but one feels little of the ironic or parodic in what these composers offer. In fact, Nally comments on modern music’s rejection of overt emotion in his interview, and argues that many composers of postmodern music are again concerned with reaching the listener directly. That is borne out here. True, the idioms are often daring as much as impassioned, but it would be a sad oversight for lovers of fine singing, interested in the future of choral music, to miss exploring these remarkable compositional voices. Nally has had great success in building loyal audiences for this music in Philadelphia, based in large part on their trust in the integrity of what he is doing. These performances are eloquent advocates for these works.
[This] disc explores more distant shores of postmodernism, with five works by experimentalist American composer David Lang acting as bookends and framework for a program of music for a cappella women’s chorus. Three of Lang’s works deal with lost or absent love, with the composer’s trademark architect-like precision paradoxically creating musical structures of piercing emotion. A fourth, this condition, sets a prose poem by Lydia Davis using dispassionate, disconnected Minimalist phrasing familiar from his The Little Match Girl Passion to create a surprising sensuality in a stream of consciousness flow of images. Evening morning day similarly sets disconnected words, in this case the Genesis creation story stripped of all verbs and religious referents: a list of creations and time periods with no action or actor. The result is enigmatic, but mesmerizing and appealing as an abstract. Incidentally, this work and I lie were recorded by Paul Hillier and Ars Nova Copenhagen (Harmonia Mundi), and fine as those performances are, The Crossing’s are superior in both precision and character. Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen provides the third example of verbal minimalism in Statements, associating words with specific pitches and then applying a strict algorithm for repetition while layering lines to provide increasingly complex harmony and counterpoint.
Two works by Paul Fowler, Potter’s Clay and Echoes, the latter written for The Crossing, offer a refreshing contrast to some of the earlier anguish. They incorporate verses on Tibetan themes from children’s books by Naomi C. Rose. The most substantial work at nearly 30 minutes—and meaning no slight to the other fine works, the most appealing to my ears—is William Brooks’s contemporary/modal Six Mediaeval Lyrics. Originally written for the three solo voices of Trio Mediaeval, this expansion of the work for women’s chorus was undertaken for The Crossing in 2010. The tone of the six poems ranges from the aggressively playful to the tender to the tragic, and Brooks’s settings are virtuosic: dissonant and spiky or achingly beautiful to underscore the text. Unsettled shifting of lines, bold solo pyrotechnics, demanding chords, and vocal glissandos give way to ravishing harmonies and, in the finale movement, modal homophony in an infinitely sad farewell. It is a vocal tour de force."