Where flames a word, Broad Street Review

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Class act
Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review, 24 Jun 2009 

Donald Nally’s choir, The Crossing, occupies a unique niche in the musical ecosystem: Its singers perform new and unfamiliar music for a small chamber choir. I heard them for the first time last season, when they joined Piffaro for a major event: the premiere of Kile Smith’s Vespers for voice and Renaissance instruments. The Crossing’s latest a capella concert in Chestnut Hill was the first pure Crossing concert I’ve attended, and it met most of my expectations. The Crossing presents novel, beautiful, complex music that requires precise coordination and first-class voices.

The program’s main event was another premiere by Kile Smith, the final work in a trilogy Nally has dubbed the Celan Project: three settings for texts by Paul Celan (1920-1970), a Romanian Jewish poet who survived the Nazi death camps.

I’d never heard of Celan, and I found the texts obscure and complex. Celan grew up in the aftermath of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, speaking several languages, including Yiddish. But German was the language used by cultured Central Europeans in his youth, and he continued to write in it after the Holocaust, even though it was the language of his oppressors. Celan’s German is so personal and inventive that Smith referred to him as the “German James Joyce” when I queried him after the concert.

Smith’s piece used English translations, which only increased their opaqueness in my case, and I listened to his piece primarily as pure, wordless music. Smith treated the unaccompanied voices just as unpredictably—and effectively—as he treated Renaissance instruments in the Vespers and modern instruments in the horn concerto he wrote for the Classical Symphony. He’s composed a number of good pieces over the years, but lately he seems to be on a roll.

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