Wednesday 21 December 2022

A daring and refreshing project: 12 composers, 12 different approaches - Carols after a Plague from The Crossing

Carols after a Plague from The Crossing, Donald Nally on New Focus Recordings
Carols after a Plague: Shara Nova, Tyshawn Shawney, Edith Canat de Chizy, Joseph C Philips, Jr., LJ White, Samantha Fernando, Leila Adu-Gilmore, Nina Shekhar, Vanessa Lann, Mary Jane Leech, Alex Berko, Viet Cuong, Donald Nally; The Crossing, Donald Nally; New Focus Recordings
Reviewed 21 December 2022 (★★★★)

A daring and refreshing project: Twelve new contemporary carols, twelve different views of what a contemporary carol might be and to what plague they were referring

In 2021, the American choir, The Crossing and conductor Donald Nally asked twelve composers to respond to the idea of creating a new work for Carols after a Plague, leaving it to the composers themselves to decide what a carol was and what the plague was referred to. The result, released on New Focus Recordings, is very far away from a Christmas album and in effect provides a modern response to the Medieval idea of a carol. On the disc, we have new works by Shara Nova, Tyshawn Shawney, Edith Canat de Chizy, Joseph C Philips, Jr., LJ White, Samantha Fernando, Leila Adu-Gilmore, Nina Shekhar, Vanessa Lann, Mary Jane Leech, Alex Berko, and Viet Cuong, plus linking music by Donald Nally.

We begin with Nally's Prelude, though a brief moan here, the linef notes rather hide the composer of the linking passages which use Michael Jones, trumpet, Daniel Schwartz and Ted Babcock, marimba, Karen Blanchard, Micah Dingler, Joanna Gates, and Kyle Sackett, percussion and paper, Kevin Vondrak, mandolin and choir to create faintly jazz-inspired short linking pieces.

Shara Nova provided three carols, which are spread across the disc, each setting Nova's own works. First Carols after a Plague: 1 Urgency has hints of Samuel Barber in the vocal writing, creating a highly effective part-song which ends on a quietly jazzy chord. Tyshawn Shawney's Requiem for a Plague is wordless, leaving us to decide for ourselves what it refers to. The result is striking, effective and all-encompassing; a dramatic and rather intense soundscape. Edith Canat de Chizy sets words by Walt Whitman in Rising Stars, an excerpt from Out of the cradle endlessly rocking from Sea Drift, in Leaves of Grass (1891-1892) which includes the words:

Shake out carols!
Solitary here, the night's carols!
Carols of lonesome love! death’s carols!
Carols under that lagging, yellow, waning moon!
O under that moon where she droops almost down into the sea!
O reckless despairing carols

Canat de Chizy's style though is certainly not backward-looking and her piece takes Whitman's words and creates something dramatic and hardly narrative at all, moving through a series of striking textures with some challenging vocal writing

Joseph C Phillips also sets his own words in The Undisappeared, talking about the moment each evening during lockdown when people came out of their hiding to cheer essential workers. Phillips, by contrast, creates something that is haunting and melodic, a soprano solo line providing a striking melody whose fragments weave their way through the work. LJ White's a carol called love sets excerpts from an ongoing poem by Alex Dimitrov called a poem called love where each day Dimitrov adds a new line beginning 'I love'. At first, White's setting seems to deliberately obscure the words, giving us muttered choral texture but then out of this a series of evocative solos appear, giving a striking sense of the individual and the collective. White's language is tonal but full of interesting edges.

Samantha Fernando's Everything Passes, Everything is Connected sets her own text about the isolation of lockdown. It has a quietly intense feel to it, with Fernando's harmonies relying on long, held notes which bring out a contemplative element to the music. Leila Adu-Gilmore's Colouring-in Book sets her own words, which she describes as 'the story of waking up every day believing that the world will be different and finding that we may, instead, face the same problems.' This is a sort of dramatic, close-harmony part-song, with Adu-Gilmore creating some striking combination of rhythms and texture.

Nina Shekar's y-mas uses words from popular Christmas songs, rewritten by the composer so the first stanza goes:

i want a hippopotamus for christmas
only a hippopotamus will do
no crocodiles, no rhinoceroses
i only like hippopotamuses
and hippopotamuses like me too

The music starts with a rather folk-ish solo which builds into a full choral texture that evokes the power of the popular Christmas song, but adds lots of extra choral elements to it, stretching the genre right out of shape yet remaining, just, recognisable.  The second of Shara Nova's contributions, Carols after a Plague: 2 Tone-policing starts with a modern harmonisation of Silent Night but gradually metamorphoses into something beyond. 

Vanessa Lann's Shining Still uses words adapted from Matthew Arnold's Thyrsis, about the power of music to bring solace. Lann's language has a folk-inspired element to it, with the opening focusing on a melodic tag rather insistently. There is a radiance to Lann's harmonies which is very effective, combined with her fondness for rhythmic repetitions. Mary-Jane Leech's Alone Together is another wordless piece. though in fact she began by working with a text (related to the 15th century composer Obrecht who died of plague), but Leech ended up missing out the text entirely. The result is something rather effective and highly intense, full of anxiety yet we are encouraged to apply our own concerns. 

Alex Berko adapts text from the Book of Exodus for his carol, Exodus, where the Biblical text begins 'Who is like you, O God'. Gentle close harmonies create a striking texture where note clusters combine with transparent textures to striking effect. Viet Cuong's So much to say sets the final stanza of Resemblance by the poet David Ferry. A beautifully crafted part-song that also gives a sense of close harmony, but harnessed here to a stateliness of delivery that makes for a striking effect and perhaps a distant echo of Arvo Part. We end with the final of Shara Nova's pieces, the highly effectiveCarols after a Plague: 3 Resolve which brings the sequence to a perfect close.

In all, Donald Nally contributes the Prelude and thirteen short interludes. I can understand the need to space the new carols out. First listening, I found Nally's jazz-inspired writing had a bit too much of a distinct personality, and the whole did not quite add up. Whilst I warmed to Nally's contribution somewhat on subsequent listenings, I could not help thinking that a more traditional approach might have benefitted the new carols, perhaps by using organ interludes of early music.

But this is a wonderfully striking project, allowing twelve composers to bring a new aspect to the traditional carol. None is strictly joyful and none is perhaps classed as a carol, yet the result is full of rich variety, superbly performed to give us a musical snapshot of a challenging period of all our lives. The range of composers and styles is quite striking, with a greater range of style than can sometimes happen with this sort of project, clearly a testament to The Crossing's talent and versatility.

Carols after the Plague
Shara Nova, Tyshawn Shawney, Edith Canat de Chizy, Joseph C Philips, Jr., LJ White, Samantha Fernando, Leila Adu-Gilmore, Nina Shekhar, Vanessa Lann, Mary Jane Leech, Alex Berko, Viet Cuong, Donald Nally
The Crossing
Donald Nally (conductor)
Michael Jones, trumpet
Daniel Schwartz and Ted Babcock, marimba
Karen Blanchard, Micah Dingler, Joanna Gates,
and Kyle Sackett, percussion and paper
Kevin Vondrak, mandolin
Recorded 29 August to 2 September 2021, 11 August 2022 at St. Peter’s Church in the Great Valley, Malvern, Pennsylvania

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