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“Seven Responses” The Crossing/ Donald Nally – Innova/ EDIE HILL: Clay Jug – The Crossing/Donald Nally – Navona

Two new and amazing releases from this wonderful vocal ensemble.

“Seven Responses” = CAROLINE SHAW: To the Hands; HANS THOMALLA: I come near you; PELLE GUDMUNDSEN-HOLMGREEN: Ad cor; ANNA THORSVALDSDOTTIR: Ad genua/To the knees; DAVID T. LITTLE: dress in magic amulets, dark, from My feet; SANTA RATNIECE: My soul will sink within me; LEWIS SPRATLAN: Common Ground – The Crossing/International Contemporary Ens./Donald Nally – Innova 912, (2 CDs) 55:12, 50:40 (2/03/17) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

EDIE HILL: Clay Jug – The Crossing/Donald Nally – Navona NV6073 (2/10/17) [Distr. by Naxos] 47:44 ****:

There seems to be a bit of a renaissance in chamber vocal ensembles and, in particular, those that specialize in contemporary music. Composer and vocalist Caroline Shaw’s own “Roomful of Teeth” is a prime example as is the Houston Chamber Choir and so many others. These two new and very impressive releases by The Crossing and their conductor/composer Donald Nally illustrate why they need to be included in the discussion of the very best of their kind in the country.

These two releases are thematically a bit different and use – as their inspiration – very different source material. “Seven Responses” is a two-disc compilation of seven different commissioned works – premiered as a concert long set – that is intended to be each composer’s ‘response’ to a movement from Dietrich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu nostri (1680) which, in turn, is a seven section small cantata suite that addresses one of the limbs of Jesus as he hung on the cross. Clearly a very somber topic, each of the works in this collection is appropriately beautiful, moody, unsettling, dark; sometimes all at once.

Of the seven works represented here I admit I undertook Caroline Shaw’s To the Hands predisposed to like it a great deal and I was not disappointed. I am a big fan of Caroline’s work and that of “A Roomful of Teeth.” Her To the Hands is a fairly compact suite of six small chorales on texts of her own device. This was, for me, the highlight of this collection but there is so much to admire here.

I also greatly enjoyed Anna Thorsvaldsdottir’s Ad genua/To the knees with its non-stop beauty tinged with mystery. David Little’s dress in magic amulets, dark, from My feet is highly impressive but is also, arguably, the most unnerving and foreboding of the works present with a reliance on a lot of open harmonies and drone-like writing. Lewis Spratlan’s Common Ground uses text by his frequent collaborator Paul Kane to give us what is basically a three-scene ‘micro-cantata’ with themes that compare symbolically Christ’s suffering and execution to the dangers of present day neglect of the environment.

I had never heard of Hans Thomalla but I found his I come near you to be odd and unsettling but – with its reliance on microtones and shifting pitch stabilities in both the chorus as well as the instrumental ensemble – attention getting and mysterious. I admit that the selections by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (Ad cor) and Santa Ratniece’s admittedly lovely My soul will sink within me did not do as much for me but these composers also very successfully met the mood and intent of this project and left a strong impression.Factor in the superb and dedicated playing of the very fine International Contemporary Ensemble. I was really impressed with this collection.


Nearly equally so was my reaction to the other new release from The Crossing, Edie Hill’s Clay Jug. 

The Minnesota-based Edie Hill was a new name for me and I am quite glad to have heard this release. She is especially adept at setting several different languages in very attractive ways. In her The Fenix, for example, Hill uses the choir in between the music’s foreground and background to accommodate a vocal soloist. Both in From the Wingbone of the Swan and Clay Jug (an excerpt from a large work of Hill’s entitled A Sound Like This) she employs three or four musical layers within the choir itself, or between the choir and accompanying instruments.

Hill is very skilled at selecting rich and ‘music ready’ texts as well. The Fenix, Alma beata et Bella and Cancion de el Alma all come from very old European sources dating back to the 10th, 15th and 16th centuries, respectively. There is a fascinating sound that permeates her work with moments of clear “modernity” alongside timbres, voicings and mood that owe a lot to the Renaissance and the ars antiqua of Spain among others. Edie Hill is a three time McKnight Artist Fellow and New York native who has spent the past several years working in Minnesota. She has studied with Lloyd Sultan, Vivian Fine and Libby Larsen, among others.

Both of these very rewarding new releases afford us a terrific opportunity to get to know the amazing work of Donald Nally and The Crossing but also some composers with whom you may or not be familiar – but you should.

—Daniel Coombs

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