The Crossing, Carols After a Plague
Philadelphia choir The Crossing is one of today’s most adventurous contemporary choirs. Under the leadership of Donald McNally, the group commissions and performs music that often challenges the norms of vocal harmonizing.
These are often extended works that outstay their welcome and don’t appeal to me, but the group’s pandemic album Carols After a Plague is different. Still challenging, still woozy and weird, these short works by a dozen composers collectively respond to the pandemic era while commenting on the Christmas-carol tradition in a variety of interesting ways.
In “Colouring-In Book,” a standout track, Leila Adu-Gilmore sets to music her own poem about a person’s frustrated efforts to do perfect work as they grow from childhood to adulthood. Alternately intense and playful, the music beautifully reflects the words. In “y-mas,” another of the album’s best, Nina Shekhar churns words from a batch of traditional Christmas carols into a haunting, wailing, and quite original holiday concoction.
Composers of Few Words
The eerie, wordless “Requiem for a Plague” by Tyshawn Sorey recalls, for me anyway, the numbing onslaught of hospitalizations and death statistics during 2020 and 2021. Also without words, “Alone Together” by Mary Jane Leach dramatizes a struggle to create standard harmonies from a miasma of jumping gestures, ultimately succeeding in interesting ways.
Other pieces riff on minimalist texts. In “Exodus,” Alex Berko powerfully combines comforting harmony, anxious, fluttery gestures, and a passage from the Jewish “Mi Chamocha” prayer to paint an evocative image of the Exodus of the Israelites: “will you stay silent/nevertheless, I pray” could be a motto of the pandemic. Anger flashes from Viet Cuong’s “Still So Much to Say,” from a poem by David Ferry that references Virgil recounting the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice: “‘There was still so much to say’ that had not been said.”
More positively, in “a carol called love” by LJ White, individual voices emerge from a bed of cloudy harmonization to intone a long series of “I love…” statements by poet Alex Dimitrov, eventually building to a rich rainbow of singular togetherness.
Poetry in Song
Few collections of new American choral compositions fail to include at least one setting of poetry by Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, the perennial national inspirations. Edith Canat de Chizy’s “Rising Stars” fills the role here, with words from Whitman’s “Shake out carols!” On the other hand, Vanessa Lann surprised this English major by going deeper into the poetic tradition with “Shining Still,” an effective distillation of lines by Matthew Arnold.
In the soft, sweet “The Undisappeared,” Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. honors the courageous health care workers and other “essential workers” of the pandemic by recalling the custom of neighbors coming out of their front doors or leaning out their windows or standing out on their balconies at 7pm to acknowledge those workers by banging on pots, pans, or whatever was handy. (I used a tambourine.)
The music of “The Undisappeared” reflects the gentle spirit of the phenomenon, not its acoustic efflorescence. That feels right, because with its combination of cheering and loud mourning that custom well represented the soul of the pandemic era. The Crossing made Carols After a Plague during the raw heart of the pandemic; listening to it now, with the worst of the plague seemingly past, brings to mind both the cries of the bereft and the quiet strength of all those who’ve come through.
Note: The above review is of the CD version. The digital version also includes a set of “Interludes” by conductor Donald McNally.
Cappella Romana, A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry’s Court
Cappella Romana too has kept busy over the past few years. The Portland, Oregon-based choir’s latest release offers a historically informed selection of a cappella music for Christmas Eve, Day, and Evening.
The concept comes from a visit by the Byzantine Emperor to the court of King Henry IV in 1400. Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos made the long journey from Constantinople seeking monetary and military aid from the Western European powers for defense against the Ottomans, who were threatening to conquer Constantinople (They did, but not until 53 years later).
Manuel and his retinue celebrated Christmas with King Henry and his court at Eltham Palace (now a manor house in London that still contains the medieval royal great hall). Cappella Romana’s founder and music director, scholar and musicologist Alexander Lingas, has deeply researched what is known of both the Byzantine (eastern) and Latin (western) liturgical Christmas music of the time and assembled on this album selections from both traditions that are known or likely to have been performed at those Christmas services in 1400.
Oh, to have been a plague-carrying flea on that wall. Failing that, we have this album, performed and recorded in Cappella Romana’s usual superb quality.