Philadelphia based contemporary music choir The Crossing releases Carols after a Plague, a collection of works by twelve composers that responds to our collective experience of the last few years navigating the pandemic, as well as grappling with the fraught issues of our time. In characteristic fashion, The Crossing, led by conductor Donald Nally, finds ways to create projects that connect music to our shared experience, with the beauty of human voices providing the glue for this timeless communal experience.
|Carols after a Plague: I. Urgency
Carols after a Plague: I. Urgency
|Interlude 1: Wonder
Interlude 1: Wonder
|Requiem for a Plague
Requiem for a Plague
|Interlude 2: Dancing
Interlude 2: Dancing
|Interlude 3: Beauty
Interlude 3: Beauty
|Interlude 4: Here
Interlude 4: Here
|a carol called love
a carol called love
|Interlude 5: Apparel
Interlude 5: Apparel
|Everything Passes, Everything is Connected
Everything Passes, Everything is Connected
|Interlude 6: Frightful
Interlude 6: Frightful
|Interlude 7: Snowman
Interlude 7: Snowman
|Interlude 8: Silent
Interlude 8: Silent
|Carols after a Plague: II. Tone-policing
Carols after a Plague: II. Tone-policing
|Interlude 9: Peace
Interlude 9: Peace
|Interlude 10: Fa/La
Interlude 10: Fa/La
|Interlude 11: Eve
Interlude 11: Eve
|Interlude 12: Power
Interlude 12: Power
|Still So Much to Say
Still So Much to Say
|Interlude 13: Gloria
Interlude 13: Gloria
|Carols after a Plague: III. Resolve
Carols after a Plague: III. Resolve
Throughout its history, the Philadelphia based contemporary chamber choir The Crossing, led by conductor Donald Nally, has championed works that address social, political, and environmental issues. Consistent with the group’s mission, their latest release Carols After a Plague takes a broad view of our experience of the pandemic, inviting twelve composers to engage with the myriad ways in which the last few years have forced all of us to confront difficult realities while gaining strength from one another. The result is a moving tribute to the resilience of communities and a clarion call to renew our collective commitment to justice.
Interwoven throughout the twelve newly commissioned choral works are a prelude and twelve interludes composed by conductor Donald Nally that create a ritualistic scaffolding for the album. Soulful trumpet lamentations, haunting marimba rolls, brilliant splashes of vibraphone color, evocative mandolin melodies, and tolling bells establish an anchor for the contrasting soundscapes of the other repertoire, unifying the collection into one larger album-length work.
Shara Nova’s three movement title work provides a second layer of interwoven material, spread through the beginning, middle, and end of the album. Carols After a Plague enters into a space of healing surrounding the racial reckoning that was triggered by George Floyd’s murder. The lush voicings in “Urgency,” extrapolation of the famous Silent Night melody in “Tone-Policing,” and exuberant joy expressed in “Resolve” share a courageous tone, approaching a painful subject matter with an open heart.
Tyshawn Sorey’s Requiem for Plague is dense and haunting, featuring murky harmonies that support disembodied high notes in the soprano. Sorey’s landscape is one of continued searching; with the many issues that have gained increased visibility over the last few years, Sorey powerfully asserts their continued urgency and unresolved essence with this wordless requiem. The album’s other wordless setting, Mary Jane Leach’s ominous Alone Together, also suggests more questions than answers.
Edith Canat de Chizy’s Rising Stars traces the process of renewal in Walt Whitman’s “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,” using chromatic clusters, word painting, and insistent repetition to capture a sense of awakening.
Joseph C. Phillips Jr’s The Undisappeared hearkens to those early days of the pandemic when the community collectively came together to cheer essential workers from our windows, capturing those moments of collective gratitude with full, illuminated harmonies.
L.J. White’s a carol called love sets poet Alex Dimitrov’s additive Twitter poem in which he adds a new line starting with “I love…” every day. Individual members of the choir emerge from the murmuring of the other voices to intone deeply personal fragments uttered from the alienated corners of the internet. In Everything Passes, Everything is Connected, Samantha Fernando also explores isolation and connection, here through shimmering full choir harmonies and stark two voice textures.
Leila Adu-Gilmore’s Colouring-In Book is about overcoming intractable struggles, both personal and societal. Nina Shekhar reimagines famous Christmas tunes and lyrics in her fantastical y-mas, refracting them through the lens of a child raised in a different culture.
Vanessa Lann’s Shining Still sets inspirational texts by Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, weaving together a series of interlocking phrases to create intensity and a call for resilience. Alex Berko’s Exodus investigates the saturation of the word “plague” in the Old Testament, and the portrayal of God as a protector in a passage from Exodus. The charged repetition of the text echoes the uncertainty of a child discovering their relationship with faith.
Viet Cuong’s Still So Much to Say sets fragments from David Ferry’s “Resemblance,” about regret over what is left unsaid in the face of death. Indeed, as we come out of a transformative era, there is still so much to be said, about our experience of the last few years and about our renewed insight into the pertinent issues of our time. The Crossing’s beautiful curation and performances of the powerful works on this album are a testament to vocal music’s unique capacity to uplift us, representing an inspirational call to live fully and conscientiously.
– Dan Lippel
Carols after a Plague was recorded August 29 through September 2, 2021, and August 11, 2022, at St. Peter’s Church in the Great Valley, Malvern, Pennsylvania
Recording Producers: Paul Vazquez, Donald Nally, and Kevin Vondrak
Recording Engineer: Paul Vazquez
Assistant Recording Engineers: Dante Portella and Henry Koch
Editing, Mixing & Mastering: Paul Vazquez
Artwork: “The New Normal” (cover), “Astronaut Terrier,” and “Big Fish” by Sasan Pix (2021) sasanpix.com
Design: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Photography: Donald Nally – Becky Oehlers Photography; The Crossing – John C. Hawthorne
The Crossing is a Grammy-winning professional chamber choir conducted by Donald Nally and dedicated to new music. It is committed to working with creative teams to make and record new, substantial works for choir that explore and expand ways of writing for choir, singing in choir, and listening to music for choir. Many of its nearly 170 commissioned premieres address social, environmental, and political issues. With a commitment to recording its commissions, The Crossing has issued 30 releases, receiving three Grammy Awards for Best Choral Performance (2018, 2019, 2023), and eight Grammy nominations.
The 2023-2024 Season includes performances in Stockholm, Helsinki, Houston, Amsterdam, den Bosch, and Philadelphia with major new works from Tania León, David, Lang, David T. Little, Ayanna Woods, Gavin Bryars, and the Philadelphia premiere of Tyshawn Sorey’s Monochromatic Light. Recent projects included Michael Gordon’s Travel Guide to Nicaragua, commissioned for The Crossing by Carnegie Hall and Penn Live Arts; John Luther Adams' Vespers of the Blessed Earth with the Philadelphia Orchestra, also at Carnegie Hall; Julia Wolfe’s unEarth with the New York Philharmonic’s in its inaugural season in the new Geffen Hall; Shara Nova’s Titration at Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam; a tour featuring a world premiere of Jennifer Higdon and additional commissioned works of Caroline Shaw and Edie Hill; and Ted Hearne’s Farming, premiering in a field at Kings Oaks Farm in Bucks County, PA, and touring to Haarlem, The Netherlands, and Caramoor Center for Music and Arts.
The Crossing collaborates with some of the world’s most accomplished ensembles and artists, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, American Composers Orchestra, Network for New Music, Lyric Fest, Allora & Calzadilla, Bang on a Can, Klockriketeatern, and the International Contemporary Ensemble. Similarly, The Crossing often collaborates with some of world’s most prestigious venues and presenters, such as the Park Avenue Armory, Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, Disney Hall in Los Angeles, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Menil Collection in Houston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, The Big Sing (formerly Haarlem Choral Biennale in The Netherlands, The Finnish National Opera in Helsinki, The Kennedy Center in Washington, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, Winter Garden with WNYC, and Yale, Harvard, Duke, Northwestern, Colgate, and Notre Dame Universities.
The Crossing, with Donald Nally, was the American Composers Forum’s 2017 Champion of New Music. They are the recipients of the 2015 Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence, three ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming, and the Dale Warland Singers Commission Award from Chorus America.https://www.crossingchoir.org/
Donald Nally collaborates with creative artists, leading orchestras, and art museums to make new works for choir that address social and environmental issues. He has commissioned over 180 works and, with The Crossing, has 28 recordings, with two Grammy Awards and seven nominations. Donald has served as chorus master at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Welsh National Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and the Spoleto Festival in Italy. Recent projects have taken him to Stockholm, London, Osaka, Cleveland, Boston, Edmonton, Houston, Helsinki, Haarlem, Riga, Los Angeles, and New York. His 72-chapter pandemic-time series Rising w/ The Crossing, has been featured in The Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR’s Performance Today; it is archived by The Library of Congress as a cultural artifact of our historical record. The 2022-2023 Season will include collaborations with Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Ventura Festival, November Music in The Netherlands, the Baltic Sea Festival in Sweden, and TBA21 in Spain. Donald is the John W. Beattie Chair of Music and professor of choral studies at Northwestern University.
It can be hard to keep up with this pathbreaking choir, but the effort will always be rewarded, a sentiment that was never truer than with this epic collection of 12 new works by composers such as Tyshawn Sorey, Shara Nova, and Viet Cuong. As the title hints, everything is organized around themes from the recent pandemic era, whether the terrors wrought by the new virus, or the rage and sorrow brought on by police killings and a divided country. Everything is done in a spirit of compassion, empathy, and sincerity, however, so it never feels like pandering. The composers and choir are all in the same boat with us, consoling rather than preaching. Interludes composed by Crossing director and conductor Donald Nally lend the nearly 90-minute album a cinematic sweep. It's hard to think of a better album with which to draw a line between 2022 and 2023. May the coming months bring different things to sing about.
— Jeremy Shatan, 1.02.2023
A (+++) New Focus Recordings release uses the human voice with considerable skill as well, but for very, very different purposes, and ones that are far more time-bound than is anything in Bach. Carols after a Plague is a collection of 14 vocal works by 12 composers, all separated by titled interludes by composer/conductor Donald Nally, with everything – all 84 minutes of the disc – focused on the years of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a pretty dour prospect, and the “carols” element – made obvious from the very first brass call at the start of Nally’s Prelude: Adam, which opens the production – borders on the grotesque. The single-word titles of Nally’s contributions connect to the “plague” at best peripherally: Dancing, Beauty, Here, Silent, Fa/La, Power, and so forth. Titles of the other composers’ works are more directly evocative of this specific moment in time: Requiem for a Plague, Colouring-In Book, Alone Together, Still So Much to Say, etc. There are three works here by Shara Nova and one apiece from Tyshawn Sorey, Edith Canat de Chizy, Joseph C. Phillips Jr., LJ White, Samantha Fernando, Leila Adu-Gilmore, Nina Shekhar, Vanessa Lann, Mary Jane Leach, Alex Berko, and Viet Cuong. The members of the Philadelphia-based chamber choir known as The Crossing sing everything with intensity bordering on fervor, and there is no denying the underlying emotion of the material and the composers who created it. The creators’ differing styles, which include everything from clearly spoken/sung declamatory material to vocalises to well-nigh indecipherable verbiage, lend the whole project more auditory variety than might be expected from material with so singular and intense a focus. Still, the focus is very specific, and while there is clearly an overarching attempt here to reflect the shared experience of a horrific time in the lives of performers and listeners alike, it is difficult to hear or experience so many works that incessantly harp on the same topic, no matter how different their methods of doing so may be. There are occasional islands of calm and almost spirituality here (Phillips’ The Undisappeared, Lann’s Shining Still, Berko’s Exodus). There are also plenty of dissonances and verbal/musical reflections of uncertainty, fear and even anger (some directed at non-pandemic events that occurred during the same time period). The concluding piece, Nova’s Resolve, is intended to point toward a better future – it is the sole entry in what is designated as Part III of this offering. However, there is no real sense of uplift in it or, really, in any of these works: they are mostly about just getting by, doing as well as possible, and trying (or hoping) to do better in the future. An there is nothing wrong with any of that. But really, making the best of things and trying to make them better is a notion for all times, from Bach’s and before to our own, and is not confined to the years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Carols after a Plague is self-limited by design – and those self-imposed limitations undermine what could have been a universality of feeling connecting people today with those who came before and will come after. That is admittedly extremely difficult for music to do, though – which is why Bach’s success at a kind of longitudinal temporal connectedness is all the more remarkable.
— Mark Estren, 1.06.2023
A daring and refreshing project: Twelve new contemporary carols, twelve different views of what a contemporary carol might be and to what plague they were referring
In 2021, the American choir, The Crossing and conductor Donald Nally asked twelve composers to respond to the idea of creating a new work for Carols after a Plague, leaving it to the composers themselves to decide what a carol was and what the plague was referred to. The result, released on New Focus Recordings, is very far away from a Christmas album and in effect provides a modern response to the Medieval idea of a carol. On the disc, we have new works by Shara Nova, Tyshawn Sorey, Edith Canat de Chizy, Joseph C Philips, Jr., LJ White, Samantha Fernando, Leila Adu-Gilmore, Nina Shekhar, Vanessa Lann, Mary Jane Leech, Alex Berko, and Viet Cuong, plus linking music by Donald Nally.
We begin with Nally's Prelude, though a brief moan here, the linef notes rather hide the composer of the linking passages which use Michael Jones, trumpet, Daniel Schwartz and Ted Babcock, marimba, Karen Blanchard, Micah Dingler, Joanna Gates, and Kyle Sackett, percussion and paper, Kevin Vondrak, mandolin and choir to create faintly jazz-inspired short linking pieces.
Shara Nova provided three carols, which are spread across the disc, each setting Nova's own works. First Carols after a Plague: 1 Urgency has hints of Samuel Barber in the vocal writing, creating a highly effective part-song which ends on a quietly jazzy chord. Tyshawn Shawney's Requiem for a Plague is wordless, leaving us to decide for ourselves what it refers to. The result is striking, effective and all-encompassing; a dramatic and rather intense soundscape. Edith Canat de Chizy sets words by Walt Whitman in Rising Stars, an excerpt from Out of the cradle endlessly rocking from Sea Drift, in Leaves of Grass (1891-1892) which includes the words:
Shake out carols!
Solitary here, the night's carols!
Carols of lonesome love! death’s carols!
Carols under that lagging, yellow, waning moon!
O under that moon where she droops almost down into the sea!
O reckless despairing carols
Canat de Chizy's style though is certainly not backward-looking and her piece takes Whitman's words and creates something dramatic and hardly narrative at all, moving through a series of striking textures with some challenging vocal writing
Joseph C Phillips also sets his own words in The Undisappeared, talking about the moment each evening during lockdown when people came out of their hiding to cheer essential workers. Phillips, by contrast, creates something that is haunting and melodic, a soprano solo line providing a striking melody whose fragments weave their way through the work. LJ White's a carol called love sets excerpts from an ongoing poem by Alex Dimitrov called a poem called love where each day Dimitrov adds a new line beginning 'I love'. At first, White's setting seems to deliberately obscure the words, giving us muttered choral texture but then out of this a series of evocative solos appear, giving a striking sense of the individual and the collective. White's language is tonal but full of interesting edges.
Samantha Fernando's Everything Passes, Everything is Connected sets her own text about the isolation of lockdown. It has a quietly intense feel to it, with Fernando's harmonies relying on long, held notes which bring out a contemplative element to the music. Leila Adu-Gilmore's Colouring-in Book sets her own words, which she describes as 'the story of waking up every day believing that the world will be different and finding that we may, instead, face the same problems.' This is a sort of dramatic, close-harmony part-song, with Adu-Gilmore creating some striking combination of rhythms and texture.
Nina Shekar's y-mas uses words from popular Christmas songs, rewritten by the composer so the first stanza goes:
i want a hippopotamus for christmas
only a hippopotamus will do
no crocodiles, no rhinoceroses
i only like hippopotamuses
and hippopotamuses like me too
The music starts with a rather folk-ish solo which builds into a full choral texture that evokes the power of the popular Christmas song, but adds lots of extra choral elements to it, stretching the genre right out of shape yet remaining, just, recognisable. The second of Shara Nova's contributions, Carols after a Plague: 2 Tone-policing starts with a modern harmonisation of Silent Night but gradually metamorphoses into something beyond.
Vanessa Lann's Shining Still uses words adapted from Matthew Arnold's Thyrsis, about the power of music to bring solace. Lann's language has a folk-inspired element to it, with the opening focusing on a melodic tag rather insistently. There is a radiance to Lann's harmonies which is very effective, combined with her fondness for rhythmic repetitions. Mary-Jane Leech's Alone Together is another wordless piece. though in fact she began by working with a text (related to the 15th century composer Obrecht who died of plague), but Leech ended up missing out the text entirely. The result is something rather effective and highly intense, full of anxiety yet we are encouraged to apply our own concerns.
Alex Berko adapts text from the Book of Exodus for his carol, Exodus, where the Biblical text begins 'Who is like you, O God'. Gentle close harmonies create a striking texture where note clusters combine with transparent textures to striking effect. Viet Cuong's So much to say sets the final stanza of Resemblance by the poet David Ferry. A beautifully crafted part-song that also gives a sense of close harmony, but harnessed here to a stateliness of delivery that makes for a striking effect and perhaps a distant echo of Arvo Part. We end with the final of Shara Nova's pieces, the highly effectiveCarols after a Plague: 3 Resolve which brings the sequence to a perfect close.
In all, Donald Nally contributes the Prelude and thirteen short interludes. I can understand the need to space the new carols out. First listening, I found Nally's jazz-inspired writing had a bit too much of a distinct personality, and the whole did not quite add up. Whilst I warmed to Nally's contribution somewhat on subsequent listenings, I could not help thinking that a more traditional approach might have benefitted the new carols, perhaps by using organ interludes of early music.
But this is a wonderfully striking project, allowing twelve composers to bring a new aspect to the traditional carol. None is strictly joyful and none is perhaps classed as a carol, yet the result is full of rich variety, superbly performed to give us a musical snapshot of a challenging period of all our lives. The range of composers and styles is quite striking, with a greater range of style than can sometimes happen with this sort of project, clearly a testament to The Crossing's talent and versatility.
— Robert Hugill, 12.22.2023
— interview by Mike Goldberg, 2.09.2023