This is an article I wrote for the UIUC Choral Department spring 2021 newsletter, first published 3/3/21. My thanks to Donald Nally for taking time to respond to some questions about his career and The Crossing’s recent successes in the context of the pandemic.
Choirs around the world have been disrupted by the pandemic, but there are few singing groups as high-profile as Philadelphia-based professional chamber choir “The Crossing.” “Last March the world of most singers fell completely apart, and they were left with no art and no work,” said Dr. Donald Nally, UIUC alum (DMA, class of ’95) and conductor of The Crossing. “We immediately went into triage for both singers and organization.”
Nally’s chamber choir is renowned for their commitment to performing new choral music, with over a hundred commissioned works to their name by some of the world’s leading composers, including the likes of David Lang, Caroline Shaw, and John Luther Adams. With such a reputation, it was impossible for Nally to sit back and wait when health experts around the world asked choirs to stop singing together.
Since the lockdown began in March, The Crossing has commissioned 16 new works, released eight short films (with another on the way), and pioneered new technologies for recording and performing while socially distanced. Most notably, they also began the “Rising w/ The Crossing” project to stay connected with their community as life began to move online. The series included archived concert recordings paired with written reflections on the effects of the pandemic on the ensemble and the wider world, published at sunrise five days a week over three months in 2020. The result is a melancholic yet fiercely determined chronicle of the pandemic moment from the perspective of some of the most well-respected voices in new music. “We created ‘Rising w/ The Crossing’ as a way of communicating with many people and maintaining connections,” Nally says. “The series has been archived by the Library of Congress as a significant record of the time, for which we are grateful.” The series was also condensed into an album, now available through New Focus Recordings.
Besides “Rising w/ The Crossing,” the ensemble released three other studio albums in 2020, including the Grammy-nominated record “Carthage,” featuring the music of James Primoch, one of America’s foremost living composers. “Jim has this way of getting inside a text that reveals things you didn’t realize were there,” Nally says. “The music is complex to sing, but not to listen to and it is therefore immensely rewarding… the process was intense and joyful and we’re so happy that the Grammy recognition will result in many more ears hearing Jim’s music and many more minds imagining the things he does.”
The nomination of “Carthage” marks the fifth consecutive year The Crossing has been Grammy-nominated for their recordings, including winning Grammys for Best Choral Performance in 2018 and 2019. But for Nally, The Crossing’s success doesn’t change anything. “For several years, we have been looking at what it means to have a voice like ours,” he said. “We’ve been trying to artistically and organizationally balance ‘attention’ or ‘status’ with projects, topics, and practices that are deeply personal. That drives everything.”
Looking forward, Nally sees the pandemic as an inflection point for The Crossing. “Our art has been profoundly changed by the pandemic and the isolation experienced by our singers,” said Nally. “It, and the subsequent social unrest, economic turmoil, Black Lives Matter awakening, and a government failing its people in every way, have inspired us to reimagine who we are, what we do, and how we do it.” The Crossing’s 23rd record, “The Tower and The Garden,” came out earlier this month on Navona Records, with another scheduled for release in April. The upcoming release will feature Gavin Bryar’s A Native Hill, written as a gift for The Crossing. Nally describes it as “an amazing 70-minute unaccompanied journey through Wendell Berry’s thoughts on life and our relationship to the earth. I love, love, love it.”
The Crossing is poised to come out of the pandemic more focused on their mission than ever before. “We have a new commissioning project––soon to be announced––that will make a record of this time through the lens of twelve composers’ voices,” Nally said. “We are asking questions about the relevance of choral music and the responsibilities of musicians who employ words as a part of their art. We just want to sing together and say something; I feel we’ve managed to do that.”