I interviewed Donald Nally in 2010, when Lyric Fest collaborated with The Crossing Choir in the Biography in Music series. This program marked the 100th Anniversary of Samuel Barber (1910-1981), one of the 20th century’s most renowned and beloved composers. In the concert, Barber’s biography was featured alongside his songs, including several previously unpublished, opera excerpts, and choral works performed by The Crossing, with Nally conducting and Laura Ward at the piano.
DN: We came together in 2005 as a group of friends who missed each other – we never intended to found a chorus and I certainly don’t take credit for that. Instead, we planned a concert and were surprised that so many people came and The Philadelphia Inquirer made a big deal out of it and said we were like ‘an answered prayer’ for choral music here. So, we thought, heck, let’s do a second concert. And here we are in 2010, commissioning projects through the summer of 2013: collaborations with great area musicians like Lyric Fest, Network for New Music, Tempesta di Mare, Piffaro. Our summer festival called The Month of Moderns has been in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Top Ten Classical Events of the Year for the last two years, and….well, it’s still like a dream…
Q: Please describe the group in your own words, and share your thoughts on your rehearsal process. What particular qualities, personal and professional, are you looking for in your singers?
DN: Again, your question implies that this is ‘my’ group, and I think it’s important to stress that we really see it as community. Sure, people have gone off to other lives that prevent them from staying with us and so we’ve added new ones, but we’re very careful to add people who fit the community – that is, they’re great musicians, they love working and singing challenging repertoire, they must sing as a means of expressing (as opposed to just liking it…), they’re great and warm and creative colleagues, and they’re nice.
That ‘working hard’ part is important, because there is no way you can sing the rep we sing without serious outside study. Even if you could read it, you wouldn’t get anything out of it if you didn’t put in the time because our music requires such intellectual activity that you have to work through the cognitive stuff in order to allow the emotional stuff to surface. Thus, when we come together, we’re mostly in a process of ‘assembly’ and ‘discovery’. The assembly aspect is taking these disparate parts and making sense of them; the discovery aspect is that in most of our music we are dealing with previously uncharted musical languages (at least for us). It’s always exciting, and exhausting…
IH: Your life as a choral conductor has been super busy. In addition to The Crossing, you are holding two other very responsible posts: Chorus Master of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and music director of Cincinnati’s Vocal Arts Ensemble, a professional choral ensemble that performs new music as well as classic choral works. In this context, what makes your experience with The Crossing unique? What do you think makes this group’s performances so well-accepted and admired by the audiences?
DN: Of course, it’s clear to anyone that I’m most at home with The Crossing. I’m not sure my opera colleagues would appreciate that, but anyone can see that ‘the clothes fit best’ when I am working with these particular singers in this environment. I suppose that I react to the same thing the audience does – that we are simply trying to say something, something honest that may give us a brief glimpse into our inner lives. The singers we work with at The Crossing are all concerned with these issues, even though we rarely discuss that specifically (one of music’s gifts is that we can agree about these things, we can be naked, we can be truthful, and we do not need to discuss it since, once it has happened there is only the memory of it).
I consistently hear from the audience that we have a very unique sound; this is not something I consciously think about, even though I know that any great choir reflects the color that the conductor is carrying in his/her chest and born on the breath. But, I do know that the collective sum of the singers we choose produces a particular basic color which we are constantly modifying to meet the demands of each piece. The other thing I hear from the audience is how much they loved what they heard, despite not having any preconceived notions. I think it’s not despite, but in fact is somewhat because they have no preconceived notions. It’s like walking into an art gallery curated by an artist you have come to trust for quality, yet with no knowledge of what will be hanging on the walls today. The Crossing is the curator, the program is the gallery.
IH: The Lyric Opera of Chicago has recently announced that you will be leaving your post of Chorus Master following the 2010-2011 season. Does this mean that you will be able to expand The Crossing’s season in the near future?
DN: Yes, definitely. We’re already making a wonderful line-up of concerts in the 2011-2012 season that includes possible collaborations with American Composer’s Forum, Tempesta di Mare, Mimi Stillman of Dolce Suono, many commissions and the possibility of touring. We’re thinking expansively and hopefully most of those thoughts will become a reality. So, my move is largely to be nearer the group, to oversee things, and to aid in our long-term planning. You can’t get anywhere without some goals and dreams…
IH: Please comment on The Crossing’s first collaboration with Lyric Fest and things you are most looking forward to in this joined project.
DN: Well, I wrote my doctoral dissertation about the music we will be performing and so it is very dear to my heart. Samuel Barber has always held a really important place for me because of his being from West Chester (I’m from Upper Bucks County), his connection to Gian Carlo Menotti – who I knew very well – and Spoleto – where I conducted many of our singers for years – his love for poetry and literature (which I share), and – and this is quite specific – his unique and entirely beautiful manner of using modal music to achieve a certain kind of warmth contrasted with a certain kind of emptiness. The entire point to my dissertation, which largely addresses the poetry in these works, is about Barber’s being somewhat haunted by the theme of loneliness. Thus, the end of his last choral work ends with Neruda’s words, “Foresaken, foresaken…” These are themes that speak very strongly to me – and, let’s face it, to most.
IH: Could you please comment on some of your choices for this particular program and on how you plan to approach placing emphasis on text with your singers?
DN: I do not think that there is anything different in approaching text in any music – for almost everything we do in our art, it drives it – it’s the impetus for the musical material and the atmosphere the composer discovered in the text. Barber was particularly careful in the texts that he chose – he tended to find great poems that seem maybe a little unfinished after you know his version of them. This is not a criticism of poets like James Agee, Stephen Spender, James Stephens, or the marvelous Louise Bogan, but it’s certainly a statement about his ability to ingest a poet’s words and go beneath them into the emotional world they invoked in him. My choices started with those unaccompanied choral works I consider to Barber’s most successful, including the little-known but truly stunning Twelfth Night, including his most famous choral work, Reincarnations, touch on his Shakespeare setting in the opera Antony and Cleopatra (another underappreciated work in my opinion), and ensure that, amidst the joy in much of this music, that constant to which he returns (as the monk says in the final song of Hermit Songs: “Alone I came into this world, alone I shall go from it”) is there.
IH: What, if any, are the challenges of Barber’s vocal/choral works?
DN: I do not think there is any complexity to Barber’s choral works for a modern choir; it is largely based on a Brahms-like tradition of vocal counterpoint and the musical language is therefore fairly familiar. This is not to say it is not challenging, because Barber wrote very virtuosically for nearly all his forces, including choirs. In fact, this will be a kind of ‘premiere’ for me, as I have programmed and rehearsed the final work of the three-movement Reincarnations and have always cancelled it (I will not do that this time) because I did not feel that I or the choir were up to it. It’s an emotionally difficult work, and the fabric is very fragile; it’s also in F Major, which, though it sounds ridiculous, is the most difficult key to sing in and maintain pitch. At any rate, Barber just assumes that the singers are going to be very musically sophisticated and since he was at all times a vocal composer – a singer himself – the individual lines are (like Brahms) beautifully written and require that this musicianship be balanced with solid vocal technique and richness of color.
IH: How many singers from The Crossing will be performing the Barber program and where are they coming from?
DN: 22 singers – that’s our usual roster, though we go up to 24 at times. I frankly don’t know where a lot of our singers originated but, because of the timing of Lyric Fest’s Barber concert, all the singers will be currently in the Philadelphia-Princeton corridor. We often have out-of-towners for our Month of Moderns, and last summer had three from Cincinnati, one from Chicago, one from Georgia, one from New York, and etc. It’s a great group and I can’t wait to start with them.
IH: What would be your greeting words to those who will visit the Barber gallery curated by The Crossing and Lyric Fest in October?
DN: We’re just thrilled to be asked and have the opportunity to work with Lyric Fest and their wonderful singers. For us, Barber is a bit of ancient music; we really do only contemporary music. So, it’s a welcome departure and a wonderful reason for that departure – the 100th birthday of an American genius who we all, as singers, know and love. Who has not heard Despite and Still and wondered if the tormented soul who set that to paper hadn’t written it about them?
By Inna Heasley, for Lyric Fest.
September, 2010. Philadelphia.
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