New Recording By The Crossing Features New And Rare Performances
Over the last year, the world has seen that it’s possible to do many jobs in relative isolation. Singing in a professional choir is not one of them.
That’s why Donald Nally, artistic director of the Philadelphia-based choral ensemble The Crossing, has spent most of the last year reinventing how the choir works together and reaches its audience amid pandemic safety protocols.
The results have included The Crossing’s release of a number of cutting-edge films and of the CD Rising w/ The Crossing. The recording documents the choir’s efforts to connect electronically with its audience during the spring 2020 pandemic lockdown and includes performances from the choir’s archive.
The project that led to the CD began unfolding when the March 2020 lockdown forced The Crossing off the stage and away from its audience.
“We needed to come up right away with some way to communicate and to keep the fire going and to have a multipronged plan to get work and art to singers because they weren’t going to be able to do things in conventional ways,” said Nally in a recent interview.
Nally reached back into the choir’s archive and released online a different recorded performance every morning at dawn for 12 weeks, then one performance each week for another 12 weeks. As Nally explains in our interview, that series, Rising w/ The Crossing, was the basis for the CD of the same title.
“We were really fortunate to have this as a memory and a commemoration of this really, really difficult time for singers, and also as something that gets some stuff out there that we wouldn’t ordinarily get out there,” Nally said.
The recording marks the CD release of David Lang’s “protect yourself from infection,” a work The Crossing recorded in 2019 for a project at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum commemorating Philadelphia’s heavy death toll in the 1918-20 Spanish flu pandemic. The work is based on a text drawn from a 1918 U.S. government-issued document on how to avoid spreading Spanish flu. Singers also sing the names of Philadelphians who died in that pandemic.
Rising w/ The Crossing also features one of the choir’s rare performances of early music – Buxtehude’s cantata Membra Jesu nostri (The Limbs of Our Jesus). The Crossing performed the work with the early music ensemble Quicksilver in 2016 as part of a project to catalyze new works in response to the suffering of others.
Beyond Rising w/ The Crossing and the choir’s projects exclusively for video, Nally discusses in our interview The Crossing’s innovative system for performing safely to in-person audiences. In the choir’s film The Forest, the group’s speaker system, called “Echoes,” transmits the music the singers sing outdoors while spaced far apart along a path through a forest. Audience members can walk physically distanced along that path and listen to the choir
The speakers will enable The Crossing also to perform new commissioned works during the choir’s Month of Moderns scheduled for June 2021.
If the pandemic has an upside for The Crossing, it’s that the technology the pandemic has forced the coir to rely on, has also opened new creative possibilities.
“It’s pushed us to a place we never thought we’d go,” said Nally. “It’s been really great.”
Jennifer Hambrick: I’m Jennifer Hambrick, midday host of Classical 101, WOSU Public Media, in Columbus. Donald Nally, artistic director of the Philadelphia-based choral ensemble The Crossing, joined me on Zoom for a conversation about their recording Rising w/ The Crossing, which emerged during and because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Hambrick: How did this recording come about?
Donald Nally: We were supposed to take a new piece of Michael Gordon to the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia and the Carnegie Hall at the end of March last year, as well as go to Westminster Choir College. And of course, all of them got canceled within, like, three days. One day I was hugging my friends and all this kind of other stuff, and two days later, it’s like nobody’s talking to anybody. So of course, everything for the singers’ world, it just collapsed, it disintegrated. Everything. Because singing is deemed to be unsafe because we spit a lot when we sing. So we needed to come up right away with some way to communicate and to keep the fire going and to have a multipronged plan to get work and art to singers, because they weren’t going to be able to do things in conventional ways. The first way was to draw on our archives from the last decade or and to make a series every morning at sunrise called Rising w/ The Crossing. And so it landed in your inbox, because the whole thing was, we really love singing together and we miss it. And after we did the 60, we began talking about, well maybe we should make a CD to remember this time, Called Rising w/ The Crossing. We’ll take our 12 pieces that really stand out or had particular impact on people who wrote back to us or whatever, and make this CD and release it at the end of the year. And at that point we were thinking, at the end of the year, when we’re all gathering for Christmas concerts. So, how silly of us. But at any rate, we were really fortunate to also have this as a memory and a commemoration of this really, really difficult time for singers. And also as something that gets some stuff out there that we wouldn’t ordinarily get out there, because we’ve never done a CD of live performances before.
Hambrick: The first track on the recording is a work by David Lang called protect yourself from infection, which sounds as though it could have been tailed made for this recording. If you would, tell us about this piece.
Nally: We recorded that in the summer of 2019 and that was for a project at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia was putting together to commemorate the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. Remember, of course, in the summer of 2019, nobody was thinking anything like this could happen. So they worked with this group called Blast Theory from London, and they came up with this project that they were going to make a parade. Because the reason why it was so bad in 1918 in Philadelphia was because they had held a Liberty Bonds parade they knew they shouldn’t hold, but they felt this pressure, the war effort and all this kind of stuff. And they held this parade and the flu went crazy. And so they wanted to commemorate this, they wanted to commemorate health care workers – health care workers then, health care workers today. So David wrote this score, but it’s really just a series of like 28 phrases that are taken from a health manual from the government from 1918, and they’re designed to be a part of this parade. So it’s not really a piece. And when we recorded it, we giggled a lot. Like, you know, “avoid the nose and throat secretions of others,” you know, “keep calm and don’t get hysterical” – these things seem so quaint to us, you know? Of course, these are the types of things we’ve being saying to each other now for a year. The other element to this is that all of the singers recorded about 30 names of people who died in the 1918 (Spanish flu pandemic). And David made this really creative and clever and imaginative SoundCloud so that you hear these names floating in the air, and then you hear these phrases about how to take care of yourself. So we made about a six-minute piece with David and our sound designer Paul Vasquez, and then that’s the lead on Rising w/ The Crossing. So a long story, but a crazy coincidence.
Hambrick: How did you come to select some of the other works on Rising w/ The Crossing?
Nally: There’s a few pieces on here that are from our set called Jeff Quartets and this is a commissioning project from – it was premiered in 2016 and it was in memory of the life of my co-founder Jeff Dinsmore, who passed away suddenly in front of us. We were about to begin rehearsals at the LA Philharmonic at Disney Hall in April of 2014, and he just had a heart attack, and that was it. It was very, very difficult. It was with us in the room, but also, he was the marketing person and head of the board and a tenor. I talked to Jeff six, seven times a day every day. So it was really tough, and it really changed the direction of The Crossing. So we went to 15 composers and asked them if they would write a short piece, three to five minutes long, for only four voices and make a set out of these. So three of them Translation from Eriks Esenvalds, which is a beautiful, beautiful piece – well, they all are, really – What it might say by Ted Hearn, and First Pink by Paul Fowler – and they’re all from that set. And then there’s a very – for us – a very unusual inclusion, which is that we sing only contemporary music and mostly pieces that are written for us. So this CD gave us the opportunity to include some pieces that weren’t written for us that we really loved performing, and the very rare occasion of us singing early music. So there’s Buxtehude’s cantata from 1680, Membra Jesu nostri, that we made a huge project out of also in 2016 called Seven Responses – seven different composers responding to Buxtehude’s seven-movement cantata about how we respond to the suffering of others. Well, we’d never done anything with those recordings. Wed released the contemporary ones, but we never did anything with the early ones. And so this allowed us to put some early music on there, which is really fun. We love doing it, we just don’t normally do it.
Hambrick: You and the singers of The Crossing were able to get back together again late last summer in Big Sky, Montana, for the first time since the pandemic struck the U.S. What were some of the first projects you worked on after you came back together?
Nally: we took the singers responses to what it was like to experience this kind of isolation and we made it – we developed with our sound designer and my assistant conductor, Kevin Vondrak, we developed this system of speakers that each singer has a six-foot pillar speaker, a looper and a mixer and long, long cables. And we’ve created pieces so that people can, at a very safe distance, walk through a piece that’s designed to be experienced linearly which we’re singing maybe 25 feet off the path and maybe 30 feet away from each other. But the pillar speakers are right on the path, so it’s very intimate, there’s a lot of whispering. It’s an incredibly, incredibly close, intimate experience, but nobody’s unsafe, and the audience is timed entry, like you would have maybe at a museum, and very spread out from each other. So everybody’s completely separate, but you’re experiencing live singing. And the first piece that we did was called The Forest, and it was written by Kevin and me. And you actually go out to a forest and you walk through the forest. And there’s these speakers that, like, sort of – it’s really cool because of the attenuation of the trees and the speakers kind of work together, and then there’s people who are also vertical and tall and they’re also in the forest. The whole thing is a metaphor for the ways in which forests are communities that even though we didn’t really realize this until recently, they talk to each other, they can help each other, they can send energy to one tree or take it away, if it’s time for that tree to no longer be there. And choirs are the same way, right? They’re individuals, but they’re actually completely depending on each other for the sounds and the textures and all that kind of stuff. And so that whole idea has been driving our ideas about creating new pieces.
Hambrick: You mentioned earlier in our conversation that your recording Rising with The Crossing really marks this particular moment in the choir’s history – the choir’s time away from singing together. Are there other ways in which you would say this particular recording is sort of autobiographical for The Crossing?
Nally: The CD has a kind of loose – there are some loose themes in it about the ways in which countries view themselves and our relationship to the earth and the environment. And so I think it just reflects what The Crossing’s values are, because many, many, many of our commissions are involved in those types of issues. So moving forward there’s a renewed commitment to that. We do want to talk about stuff like that in our music.
Hambrick: I’ve been speaking with Donald Nally, artistic director of The Crossing, about their recording Rising w/ The Crossing. Thank you so much for your time today.
Nally: Thank you.
Hambrick: I’m Jennifer Hambrick with Classical 101, WOSU Public Media, in Columbus.