To some, Philadelphia composer Kile Smith might be known for his religiously inspired works, or, for others, his genial on-air personality as host of WRTI’s radio show unearthing orchestral gems from the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Fleisher Collection.
With the world premiere Saturday night of The Arc in the Sky, a vivid new work for unaccompanied choir, Smith moved into the vaguely spiritual realm of the Crossing, the Philadelphia-based professional chamber choir.
Actually, in using the texts of 20th-century American poet Robert Lax, Smith emerged in manifold forms. Another composer might have chosen to be more stylistically committed, but Smith has a sensitive ear, and different styles emerged from Lax’s language. Each of the nine movements of The Arc in the Sky has its own distinct sound; other choirs, in fact, could take this piece and bite off single movements that can stand on their own quite nicely.
Not any choir, though, could tackle this material. It asks for a kind of security in close pitches and far reaches of the vocal range not to be entered into lightly. Smith’s textures suggest that he hears his musical world with all of the complexity and layering of orchestral music. And in this and other ways, the Crossing, which commissioned this work along with its conductor, Donald Nally, proved ideal. In the resonant clarity of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, and already having recorded the work, the Crossing’s premiere was poised and polished.
The sound of the ensemble itself, its very personality, bound the movements together even as the variegated compositional styles flickered by. In a pre-concert talk, Smith admitted to growing up with the sound of Glenn Miller, and there it was in the middle movement of a section called Jazz – gently pulsing, reflective, jazz harmonies in a mood mellow.
Chant was the musical language in the opening of the middle section, subtitled Praise, and a pop-music vernacular took over in the last movement of the section, “Psalm.”
The Crossing is a group that likes to tackle the big questions. One concert next season is billed as a chance to explore “democracy, capitalism, secular humanism, and the intrinsic value of art” as they are “put in opposition to authoritarianism, socialism, religion, and utilitarian art.” And indeed with the movement “The Arc,” Smith concludes his piece with a big statement — a bright-as-sunshine shout of ecstasy that looks to the horizon and suggests a broad spiritual quest.
I think, though, the music that stayed with me most was the penultimate movement that observes fishermen mending their nets. Smith followed Lax’s prosaic specificity with great warmth and atmosphere, and by creating layers of meaning. There was something of Britten in the vocal writing, a quality that widens the potential connotations of the words through the music, but not in an obvious way.
The thicket of sound — was that fish moving in nets? The repeat of certain words were as underwater echoes. Here the essence of poet and composer became one, and the piece made the case that the mundane in life can be a window into greater meaning when framed by the right artists.