Since that time, I am happy to see that the Concerts and Lectures department has stayed a progressive course by presenting ensembles such as Alarm Will Sound, ETHEL, Decoda, ACME and a museum-wide celebration of the music of John Zorn to name a few — and particularly since the appointment of the new GM, Limor Tomer.
Maestro Nally's choir holds itself high amongst these ensembles, and displayed some incredible plumage on Sunday evening with a program of challenging works by Estonian composer Toivo Tulev (Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!), Wolfgang Rihm (The US premiere of Über die Linie III: Astralis) and the American, David Lang, in a performance of his Pulitzer Prize-winning cantata, The Little Match Girl Passion.
I have to say, when my attention is so gripped by such compelling programming, I always suffer from a mounting anxiety that something will go wrong; the focus will break, a chorister will squawk, someone will noisily drop something on stage or start singing too soon. This isn't to say that I have some in-born presumption that something will or must go wrong, or that I go into a concert assuming it can't possibly be that good. My anxiety is the result of years of conditioning within the hallowed halls of academia. It is all built upon a compound understanding of what could go wrong, but doesn't always have to.
During music school, I spent hours upon hours in the library connected to a pair of headphones and listening to every possible recording of modern and contemporary music for the choir I could find. I heard incredible sounds and such virtuosic musicianship that the world of the voice seemed to be an un-cracked oyster, stuffed with pearls. Those sounds spoke to me directly—purely—without having been filtered through a violin or a xylophone or some other piece of technology.
There was, however, always some opposition from certain teachers, who insisted that one must go easy on the choir, one must accommodate the choir, one must help them out, which made me feel at the time as though the choir was perceived as the invalid of the stage, as though singing is a handicap in the absence of a real instrument. My teachers admired the chorus, and wrote a fair amount of vocal music, but the choir always seemed to be there as a special effect, supporting the band by singing the tune. Of course, in the end, I rebelled and went out on a limb to express myself by designing challenging material that only the choir had the potential to synthesize. Organizations of sounds inspired and shaped by the process and physicality of vocal production, and not just notes and harmony that could be plucked out of thin air in a pinch.
I can certainly understand where my teachers were coming from. After a number of near disasters even at the hands of our finest student vocal ensembles, I also came to feel that the Ligetis, Ferneyhoughs and Scelsis of the world are too impractical to be emulated, and that their master works of the Twentieth Century remain curiosities and relics of a bygone age of discipline and rampant funding for the arts. I was never quite content to blame the choir after a poor performance, and slid comfortably into a realm of compromise that remained well within the prickly boundaries of the risks that accompany more pioneering creativity.
The rest is an ongoing story for another time, but hearing The Crossing on Sunday night immediately brought me back to those midnight listening sessions in the library, and reminded me that what inspired me then is possible, indeed, that anything is possible, provided there is an equally balanced measure of understanding, musicianship and determination on both sides of the scale.
True, Sunday's program did not include works quite so avant-garde as Scelsi or Ferneyhough—nor nearly as impractical-albeit-rewarding—but it isn't always overtly-imaginative extended techniques or unpredictable and incomprehensible harmonic material that makes a new work refreshing. If I had to choose one word with which to draw a golden thread through The Crossing's performance, it would be, very simply: drama. I don't necessarily mean the theatrical kind, as Sunday's performance very much adhered to standard concert hall conventions, with a touch of creative lighting thrown in. As a composer, I often find that in our efforts to come up with something new to do with such ancient and familiar forces as a cluster of voices, we often overlook the powerful element of drama in its innumerable forms. The drama in a period of silence as the listener tries to anticipate what may come next, or whether or not the piece has ended. The drama in dynamic extremes, and especially in subtle quiet, and the drama even in a single note, regardless of the text. The suggestive power of carefully constructed dissonances, which can make a sudden consonance (i.e., a simple major triad) seem arresting and even ugly.
Thanks to the ingenuity of these three great composers and The Crossing's apparent dedication to realizing in performance what these gentlemen have described on paper, the world of the voice does seem still to be brimming with pearls and the ability to create them.