The Philadelphia-based chamber choir The Crossing has long supported musical works that tackle social, political, and environmental themes, and their most recent album is no exception. On Carols After a Plague, released December 9 on New Focus Recordings, 12 composers explore how the last few years have forced us to face challenging realities while drawing strength from our broader communities. The result is a stirring ode to humanity’s tenacity.
Interspersed throughout the album are a series of interludes composed by conductor Donald Nally and Shara Nova’s three-movement work, “Carols After a Plague.” The interludes act as a palate cleanser in between commissioned works, giving the listener a chance to reset their ears, while “Carols After a Plague” is the connective tissue that unifies the entire album. This kind of thoughtful sequencing makes this more than a collection of recordings and shows consideration for the album as a format; it’s not hard to imagine The Crossing performing an evening length concert of this music in the same order as the album.
“Requiem for a Plague” by Tyshawn Sorey has an ominous quality, exaggerated by the spread of voices; thick low-register harmonies provide a base for higher soprano lines to ring out, mourning the masses of people taken by Covid. The album’s other wordless composition, “Alone Together” by Mary Jane Leach, takes a similar approach to a less grim side of the pandemic: social isolation via constant communication. In a sonic metaphor that would be trite in less capable hands, Leach uses the various sections of the choir to highlight the constant noise of the internet: at times we are all singing together in harmony, but more often than not, there’s someone vying for a solo, whether we asked for it or not.
“Rising Stars” by Edith Canat de Chizy uses incessant repetition to convey the process of regeneration in Walt Whitman’s “Out of the cradle eternally rocking.” The work makes liberal use of chromaticism, but feels very comfortable to listen to despite its tonal adventurousness. “The Undisappeared” by Joseph C. Phillips Jr. makes for a nice juxtaposition; Phillips’ music is more tonally centered, calm, and peaceful in its own way. The work is dedicated to essential workers, and memorializes the days in the beginning of the pandemic when we would openly express gratitude for the people who kept our country working.
L.J. White’s “a carol called love” sets an additive Twitter poem by Alex Dimitrov. From the murkiness of the entire choir, soloists sing the intensely private passages shared from across the internet. While the work is heavy, it also has a sense of humor, which is very welcome about halfway through an album that runs the risk of being too dark. In much the same way, Samantha Fernando explores notions of isolation and connection in “Everything Passes, Everything is Connected.” While the choir generally sings in unison, the harmonies seamlessly slide from simple to complex.
“Colouring-In Book” by Leila Adu-Gilmore is about confronting personal and societal problems. The full choir crescendoes together, giving way to beautifully syncopated passages before coming into unison once again. A standout work, Nina Shekhar’s “y-mas” sets familiar Christmas texts, but reimagines the context in which they appear. Her version envisions a child from a different culture interpreting Western Christmas, and Shekhar expertly balances the work between ensemble singing and brief solo features.
Vanessa Lann’s Shining Still sets various texts by Victorian poet Matthew Arnold in an interwoven texture, generating intensity and a call to perseverance. An exploration of the possibilities of language is continued in Alex Berko’s Exodus, which focuses on the repetition of the word ‘plague’ in the Old Testament.
Viet Cuong’s “Still So Much to Say” also uses fragments of a text, using “Resemblance” by David Ferry. The piece is centered on ruminating over what is left unsaid in the face of death. While all of the pieces on Carols After A Plague focus on pandemic-related issues, Cuong’s contribution in particular works as a capstone, taking us away from experimental investigations into language and use of text, and towards a stark reminder of the human cost of the past three years.
Vocal music has a singular ability to uplift us while confronting us with difficult truths, which is demonstrated by the carefully thought out curation and sequencing across Carols After a Plague. The Crossing’s affecting performances serve as an exhortation to live gratefully and responsibly.
I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.
You can support the work of ICIYL with a tax-deductible gift to ACF. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or composersforum.org.