Small red buttons decorated with a curled mustache appeared on the shirts and lapels of anyone associated with The Crossing at its "Jeff Quartets" concert at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill on Friday night.
It was an evening to honor the late Jeff Dinsmore. Known for his contribution to the mustache-wax industry, Dinsmore was the beloved co-founder of this chamber choir. And in the aftermath of his fatal heart attack suffered during a rehearsal two years ago, he is now the namesake of a memorial fund that produced 15 short works by major composers.
The lineup was impressively far-reaching, including the eminent Dutch minimalist Louis Andriessen plus younger composers for whom The Crossing was a catalyst in creative breakthroughs. Not everybody contained themselves within the four-part harmony format suggested by the concert's title. Eriks Esenvalds' Translation framed his distinctively entrancing harmonic footprint with a backdrop of humming and tuned water glasses.
Among the wide-ranging choices of texts, Kile Smith's You Are Most Welcome musicalized e-mails from Dinsmore showing how a peripheral glance at a personality can reveal things that a more earnest portrait does not. William Brooks' For Orpheus utilized a poem by Pierre Joris with Dinsmore's name as an embedded acrostic - and illustrated how the memorials play by different rules.
Reaching some sort of closure takes precedence over certain aesthetic considerations. I frankly didn't know what Brooks was truly trying to say but respected his need to say it. Ted Hearne's What It Might Say lived up to the ambiguity of the title but in ways that made me want an immediate encore performance. Lansing D. McLoskey's Dear World didn't hook me until a lyrical tenor solo in the middle - and the realization that such a moment couldn't be achieved without what came before. Lewis Spratlan simply didn't want to end his Gentle Soul, Find Peace - and thus tried to get too much mileage out of the material at hand. Again, this was allowed; confronting loss is a process without time limits.
Though five to 10 minutes in duration, the pieces weren't always convincingly self-contained miniatures. But that's not necessarily what they were there to do. Some of them stopped rather than concluding. Benjamin C.S. Boyles' piece was like that, perhaps because texts prompted large, almost Penderecki-esque gestures that couldn't be comfortably contained in any miniature form. With David Shapiro's Sumptuous Planet, harmonies seemed to fan out into infinity to the point where perhaps a solid conclusion wasn't possible.
When a piece did serve a multiplicity of aesthetic and occasional functions - as with David Lang's make peace - the effect illustrated the singular power of smallness. Lang's text, from The Mourner's Kaddish, drew you in with amiably leap-frogging voices that led with alchemical inevitability to simple blocks of chords that said "Make Peace." Santa Ratniece's magical Thousand Waves was full of descriptive effects and birdlike vocal trills built around a harmonic floor that kept shifting between voices and thus wasn't a floor at all.
Bo Holten's A Jeff Quartet for 4 Voices maintained hymnlike simplicity but a conversational quality fitting for an intimate occasion. Robert Convery's The Beautiful Land of Nod felt almost like a lullaby written by master melodist Jerome Kern (though with greater harmonic sophistication).
Two years since Dinsmore's death, the pieces written in his honor aren't necessarily going to be about loss but a larger celebration of accomplishment, especially in this designated 10th-anniversary season of The Crossing. Gabriel Jackson's Yes, I Am Your Angel was a harmonically rich piece with words by Karlis Verdins, ending with "Ask to be taken home; don't fret, write a poem." (Always excellent advice).
One new idea I hope will continue: The Crossing offered scores of all the pieces in the evening's concerts in a nicely bound volume for $25. That's hugely welcome when you're digesting so much new music in one sitting, especially works such as Andriessen's Ahania Weeping. Its compressed voice writing can be hard to parse on first hearing, but as read in the score, it reveals ingenuity typical of this great composer.
At the concert's conclusion, director Donald Nally had his choir hand out drinks drinks to toast Dinsmore. But one must also toast The Crossing. This concert alone had a huge amount of music to master, and, true to form, did so without any sense of cutting corners. Each piece's world was revealed with maximum clarity. Diction can, at times, be better (which may have to do with the church acoustic).
But the point is that The Crossing continually strikes a blow against industrialized music-making that is so much a part of our world that we often don't notice how much a performance's scope can be limited by restrictions on rehearsal time. Also, in a culture that can't help being suspicious of great things - with a nagging notion that nothing is all that it seems to be - The Crossing is indisputably genuine.
I'm not saying everything is always wonderful: New music, by its nature is untested. Maybe half the pieces on this concert will have a future life. But that still puts a body of work onto the larger musical landscape that wouldn't have been there before.