The Crossing: Changing the world, one concert at a time

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The Crossing and PRISM Quartet. Credit: Becky Oehlers

Most concerts by the new-music chamber choir the Crossing have a few listeners wondering out loud at the end where the group has been all these years.

Answer: Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill,  easily accessed by two SEPTA train lines, but still a psychological distance from Center City. And when not there, the Crossing might be in the wading pool outside Lincoln Center, singing through megaphones or inside Los Angeles' Disney Hall, navigating some of the most explosive and intricate music being written today. And, now, having just recorded music for an installation to open in May at the Wild Center in the Adirondack Mountains, the Crossing will be heard there for the next three years. 

The more serious question at the 4 p.m. Sunday Chestnut Hill concert will be how could founder Donald Nally have foreseen the relevance of the new work he presents  today -- Zealot Canticles by Lansing D. McLoskey -- based on the writings of Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka? The piece peers into the fanatical mind-set, not with well-honed poetry, but with blunt prose, like "I am right, you are wrong, I am right, you are dead."

Answer: Nally, 56, is so tapped into social issues that relevance of some sort is likely to surface at any time. Because choral works are created more quickly than symphonies and operas, composers can much more readily respond to the zeitgeist. So open-ended is the choral medium (literally, as the size of the Crossing ranges from eight to 32 voices) that it has acquired a Wild West quality -- relatively lawless and ready for anything.

So it is on the Crossing website (www.crossingchoir.com), with 40 or so SoundCloud and other digital links to its performances of composers from Philadelphia to Riga, and in three new commercially released CD sets. Seemingly out of nowhere, the group issued Clay Jug, a quite satisfying work by composer Edie Hill on the Navona label. Edie who? She's a Minneapolis composer of music that purposefully juxtaposes singing, humming, flute, marimba, and much else.

Many great, original compositional voices first came my way out of the group's 40-some world premieres and 30-some U.S. premieres, including Ted Hearne and Eriks Esenvalds. Crossing premieres have also revealed dramatic new sides of local composers Robert Maggio, Kile Smith, and James Primosch.

Few people at the turn of the current century could have seen this coming: New choral music was often written to accommodate amateurs and was heard mostly within the choral subculture, except for professional groups, such as the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, which kept busy with pieces such as the Mozart Requiem with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Now, this musical stepchild has evolved into a rock star, not just with the Crossing (founded in 2005 just as a collection of vocal professionals who wanted to sing together), but with superchoirs all over the world that have become focal points of important new music.

That and a few other key trends have come together here: Respect for the neo-tonality movement, among composers as well as listeners, meant voice-friendly music was taken more seriously. The Baltic republics, whose tradition of singing festivals was a key part of their liberation from Russia, have been producing mind-blowing sounds never previously imagined in choral music. So you understand Nally's nonchalance when the Rolling Stones tapped the Crossing for a 2013 local performance of "You Can't Always Get What You Want": It was the oldest and easiest music the group had ever sung. 

Nally's own progression began with the mainstream Choral Arts Philadelphia, and, amid prestigious positions with the Welsh National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, he increasingly asked all who were within earshot about giving it all up and devoting more time to the Crossing. I told him no, he shouldn't. He heard "yes." I'm glad of that.

He subsequently landed a job at Northwestern University -- as director of choral ensembles -- that readily supports his new-music habit and allows him to train a "new music Jedi" generation of singers who can deal with anything.

To maintain artistic freedom, the Crossing went for years without much infrastructure, such as a board of directors. Rather than programming crowd pleasers by Eric Whitacre, Nally discovered Santa Ratniece, the 39-year-old Latvian whose "My Soul Will Sink Into You" was the highlight of last year's Seven Responses concerts with its clouds of near-hallucinatory, painfully ecstatic choral sound containing the words of a 13th-century saint. His relatively high success rate with new music isn't just luck. He persuades composers to drop or significantly revise large portions of movements that don't work.

The trio of new Crossing recordings, however, show how new recording techniques are badly needed for capturing unprecedented sounds. Hearne's Sound from the Bench, which comes out this week on the Cantaloupe label, represents a breakthrough, having been produced almost in the manner of a pop album, in a recording studio rather than in a church with microphones. The barely controlled chaos of Hearne's opening moments take on a more revealing sense of control than chaos in a piece that explores how the U.S. judicial system has increasingly granted corporations power over an unsuspecting human population.

The church acoustic in which the piece was first heard inevitably had a homogenizing effect on Hearne's poly-stylistic richness, whose words are set to harmonies that sound like an ironic version of the Beach Boys one minute and strident hellish voices in another. In Chestnut Hill, the electric guitar writing seemed a bit aimless. On the recording produced by Nick Tipp, guitars make perfect sense. I always respected Sound from the Bench; now I welcome it into my life.

The two-disc Seven Responses set on the Innova label documents the Crossing's biggest project to date -- seven composers examined the crucifixion of Christ -- but it was recorded in a single day at St. Peter's Church in Malvern. Ratniece's alternate harmonic  planet truly needs surround sound to reveal all that's there. David T. Little's piece "dress in magic amulets" has percussion suggesting the nails used in the crucifixion, but faulty sound balance blunts the effect.

Caroline Shaw's meditation on compassion, "To the Hands," is yet another case of a piece growing into its own timeliness. Its fifth movement text consists mainly of statistics about displaced persons.

Some pieces haven't yet found their legs: Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's "Ad-cor" breaks into provocatively ironic speech -- "My body screams for sentimentality" -- though finding the right delivery for that remains elusive. But let's have some perspective here: These are significant works that are often heard only here (and, in the case of Seven Responses, New York's Mostly Mozart Festival). And there's maybe no wrong way to get the music beyond those city limits.  

The Crossing premieres the "Zealot Canticles" at 4 p.m. Sunday  at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave. Tickets: $20-$35. Information: www.crossingchoir.com.

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