by Katie Heilman, special to the Sybaritic singer
In a time where live music is nearly impossible to make happen safely, Grammy award-winning new music choir The Crossing gifts us with Rising, their first live album and a collection of recordings from concerts in the “before” times. This album came out of a series of morning emails sent by artistic director Donald Nally as the pandemic began to shut everything down. Rising with The Crossing each morning, members could stay connected and reflect on music they performed in the past. Now, more than ever, this connection is crucial, and this collection of works shows the power of musical connection.
The names are humanized in this contrast, reflecting how those who have died were human beings
The album opens with the unfortunately timely Protect Yourself From Infection, by David Lang, the work that inspired the album. The text comes from official government instructions on avoiding the 1918 flu, interspersed with the names of victims of the flu from Philadelphia. Many of these instructions sound familiar over a century later. The most striking aspect of this work is the contrast between the mechanical-sounding choral instructions with the soloists singing the names of the dead. The names are humanized in this contrast, reflecting how those who have died were human beings. It is a sentiment that is needed today, as those suffering from COVID-19 are human beings often lost in statistics displayed on a screen.
2020 has had several other major upheavals, of course, and what better way to reflect on the political crises this year than with movements from Lang’s national anthems. The first movement, our land with peace, uses text that reflects an almost obsessive love for one’s nation. The Crossing collaborates with International Contemporary Ensemble for this performance, and the two ensembles blend together flawlessly for this haunting work. Political content aside, this work is well-performed, especially the complex rhythmic textures in the fourth movement, keep us free. On a similar note, Alex Berko’s Lincoln holds relevance in the American political climate. The text comes from a dedication to Abraham Lincoln, yet the piece never mentions his name, instead focusing on those who remember him as history goes on. There is a brief reflection on his “lonely soul,” heartbreakingly performed by the choir as a pause to remember the human who stopped a conflict, as the words and phrases “conflict,” “by the truth,” and “marches” continue on in the background – persistent flashbacks, and yet this country is still in conflict today.
The text painting in this work is beautiful, starting so fragile and empty and growing into something triumphant
Several works on this album revolve around the need for human connection, and in a time of necessary isolation, these works speak stronger than ever. The Crossing hauntingly displays mourning the loss of connection in Jody Talbot’s Lost Forever, while quietly portraying the hesitant creation of the new connection between infant and parent in Ted Hearne’s What it might say. Both works create a sense of longing, something all can relate to in this year. Paul Fowler’s First Pink reflects on another very human need – that for perseverance. The text painting in this work is beautiful, starting so fragile and empty and growing into something triumphant. This persistence may join with anticipation, which comes across in Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Translation. This beautiful, atmospheric work begins with emptiness, similar to First Pink, but there is more of a sense of waiting and preparation to begin something new, while taking its time to reach this new beginning. The Crossing conveys all of these emotions, and one can only imagine the power that could be felt in person during the concerts where these works were performed.
Interspersed between works all composed in the last few decades are two sections from Dietrich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu nostri, an early Baroque work. The liner notes say it best: “In fact, we learned a lot about our repertoire through singing music that forms the foundation on which contemporary music is built.” The Crossing slips into their Baroque hats expertly, as many of the skills required to sing complex newer works apply to the counterpoint and independence of the early Baroque period. They collaborate with early music ensemble Quicksilver for these performances. The connection to an ancient past closes out the album with two indingeous “prayers,” one based on a prayer of the Ute tribe in the American West, and the last taken from prayers of the Ainu tribe in Japan. Ešenvalds’ Earth Teach Me Quiet asks to learn lessons from nature itself, a timeless need as climate change ravages the planet. The closing work, Horo horo hata hata, by Latvian composer Santa Ratniece, immediately takes the listener to another place and time. The Crossing performs the extended techniques and difficult ranges of Ratniece’s work expertly.
2020 has been a year of conflict, uncertainty, and drastic change. The variety of works included in Rising reflect on aspects of this year while remembering the power of live music. The Crossing has won two Grammys for a reason – they truly can perform a variety of works in a variety of styles with power and emotion. The power and resilience in Rising is a fitting close to look back on a tumultuous year. Rising is available now digitally and will be released in a physical format in January.
Katie Heilman is a composer, oboist, and mandolinist based in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has a passion for using social media in the arts, as well as working behind the scenes to help the next generation of musicians. Katie is a fierce advocate for supporting local arts. You can usually find her attending a chamber music concert or theater show on any given weekend, and she has been a member of the Schubert Club’s arts ambassador group Theoroi since 2015. She is also a frequent collaborator with Twin Cities-based theater group Bard Shakes.