Hillers not conservative when it comes to ‘Crossing’
Donald Nally conducted his chamber choir, The Crossing, in concert Sunday afternoon in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The roster of works for unaccompanied chorus didn’t include a single piece of music composed more than a dozen years ago. The church was nearly packed by an enthusiastic audience, making the concert one of the most important of the many that have taken place in Chestnut Hill so far this season.
Nally has built a loyal and large following among local choral music lovers despite consistently programming music mostly unknown to his audiences written by composers mostly unheard of by those audiences. Most delightful of all, he has chosen the clear yet resonant setting of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill as The Crossing’s home base and has found that local audiences have flocked to The Crossing’s concerts. Chestnut Hillers may be traditionalists in many ways, but they‘re not necessarily conservative — at least when it comes to new music chosen by Donald Nally!
The Crossing’s program was a cornucopia of beautiful new music — and I do mean “beautiful.” With the exception of only one score, the entire roster of pieces was characterized by new music that created its own sound-world of melodies, harmonies, contrapuntal textures and rhythms. Of course, the fact that it was all sung spectacularly well didn’t hurt its chances for a successful first hearing.
Danish composer Bo Holten’s three works — “First Snow,” “Hermit Rock” and “A time for everything” — were my personal favorites. The first offered sweet, gentle wordless melodies sung by the women, evoking the falling snow of a quiet evening. Their descending scales came together to form ever-changing harmonic progressions that spoke an other-worldly language, lulling you into a soothing trance.
Both Erhard Karlkoschka’s “Variationen mit Celan-Gedichten III” and David Shapiro’s “It is time” (in its world premiere) are part of the “Celan Project” of commissioning new musical settings of Paul Celan’s poetry. The harmony of the former’s first movement is thick with dissonance and an occasionally shrill tone, but it provokes a haunting mood that resolves with consonant beauty. Shapiro’s work is angular and a tad too emotionally chilly for my tastes but distinctive and memorable all the same.
And the one exception to the music’s high standard? John Kennedy’s “Someday,” which fully deserves the epithet of “Vatican II Dreck” for its similarity to the simple-minded liturgical music that’s come in the wake of the so-called reforms of liturgy and its music. Nonetheless, it was a small price to pay to hear a concert of so much wonderful new music conducted and sung with a commitment to the highest standards of music-making.
Zachary Hemenway, the newly appointed organist and choir director of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, recently announced the formulation of two parish choirs for children and teenage girls. Membership in both ensembles will be open to parishioners and non-parishioners alike.
Hemenway, an alumnus of Yale University, explained his hope that establishing the two new choruses would fill an existing open space in the music program at St. Paul’s Church.
“We’re hoping to expand the parish’s music program to include young people,” he said. “We’re a church (meaning both the particular parish and the larger denomination) that places a high value on tradition, so it’s important to teach that tradition to young people so that they can carry it on when they become adults. And there’s a tremendous need for a quality program of music education for young people at no cost whatsoever. Young people are welcome to join either of these two choirs even if they’re not members of the parish, although it is true that most of their singing will take place in the services of the church.”
Hemenway explained that membership in the children’s chorus can begin as early as third grade. “There’s no need for prior musical experience,” he pointed out, “but being able to read words is a requirement.”
Rehearsals for the younger choristers are scheduled for Thursdays between 4:45 and 6:15 p.m., with dinner included. Sight singing and vocal training will be stressed along with choral singing in an ensemble. Music theory will also be taught.
“The repertoire will be varied,” Hemenway continued. “Most of the music will be sacred choral music, of course, but that can be very diverse because there’s more than six centuries of choral music in the Anglican tradition from Renaissance polyphony, and even earlier to Gregorian chant, through the great cathedral repertoire of the 19th and 20th centuries all the way up to spirituals and contemporary music. We plan to run the full gamut of styles.”
The senior girls choir is scheduled to rehearse on Sundays from noon until 1:15 p.m. to accommodate the older singers’ busy schedules at or after school during the week. Lunch will be offered at these rehearsals.
For more information, call Zachary Hemenway at 215-242-2055, ext. 24.