January 4, 2021
While choral groups may be the most endangered of musical species during the COVID-19 scourge, new releases just keep on coming from several of these organizations many months into the pandemic. In the case of Philadelphia’s prolific The Crossing, one solution was to raid the archives, dipping into some 15 years of accumulated concert recordings.
Hence Rising w/ The Crossing (New Focus) — 12 selections from a 60-part series of daily digital releases that started in March 2020. Most of the tracks are of new music, a couple are of very old music, all are grouped together to form “an expression of solidarity and community” in COVID times.
The kickoff track, David Lang’s protect yourself from infection, provided the inspiration for the collection. The libretto consists of a 1918 U.S. government document instructing citizens how to avoid the Spanish flu during that year’s pandemic — with every word applicable to our pandemic — interspersed with the names of Philadelphian victims. A predictable response? No, the piece was written in 2019 before anyone had ever heard of the COVID, so we can credit Lang with prophesy, if not a departure from his usual composing routine (short phrase, pause, short phrase, pause, short phrase, pause, repeat ad infinitum). There’s more of that start-and-stop shtick in a couple of excerpts from Lang’s the national anthems, with spare backing from a string quintet from the International Contemporary Ensemble.
I prefer the lush, delicious modern harmonies of Ēriks Ešenvalds’s Translation, with its coda repeating into the lingering void. Ted Hearne’s alluring What it might say also falls into the lush category — no coincidence since it and Translation come from the same project, Jeff Quartets, a memorial to The Crossing’s co-founder Jeff Dinsmore. Another attractive Ešenvalds piece is Earth Teach Me Quiet, with its descending choral lines and quiet humming blurring into the warm vibrating sounds of a marimba.
The old music consists of two excerpts from Dietrich Buxtehude’s oratorio Membra Jesu nostri, with the early music ensemble Quicksilver providing the plaintive period-instrument backings. This is apparently one of The Crossings’ rare ventures outside contemporary music — indeed, its first, according to leader Donald Nally — and they are just as good at that, contouring their phrasings to the swelling attacks of the period ensemble.
Last comes the strangest and most progressive-sounding track — a spacey work by Santa Ratnieve called Horo horo hata hata, based on Ainu prayers (the Ainus are the native people from Japan’s Hokkaido and Russia’s Sakhalin and Kamchatka regions). To my ears, it’s all drifting, sliding, cawing, vibrating syllables, a descendant of Ligeti’s choral experiments, ending with weird cries into the night. I found it captivating and disturbing, a reflection of the unmoored mood of pandemic times.