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Life gets lush: Gregory Spears meets The Crossing

Finding one’s voice is an elusive matter for composers – a combination of circumstances that may or may not be in their control, plus the unpredictable factor of artistic evolution.

Somebody like Jennifer Higdon doesn’t necessarily wake up in the morning and declare herself ready to write, say, a tuba concerto. People come to her with those kinds of requests, and if the Higdon genie can inhabit that bottle, everybody ends up happy. In vocal works, words, drama and prescribed scoring dictated by the performers at hand merge with what the composer wants to do – or can do. And on a good day, the composer is asked to do exactly what he or she wanted to write anyway, or had already begun.

That’s what it felt like listening to Gregory Spears’s The Tower and the Garden, one of four pieces (this one a world premiere) heard at the Oct. 27 concert by The Crossing in Philadelphia. Many composers go from maximal to minimal as they pare back and distill their musical language; Spears may be going in the opposite direction. His Requiem and the neo-medieval dance opera Wolf-in-Skins are extremely spare (not to be confused with the narrow vocabulary often heard from young composers). Since then, a trajectory seems to be emerging. His hit opera Fellow Travelers, about romance and betrayal amid the gay witch hunts of the McCarthy Era, is often a model of dramatic understatement, but it demanded greater harmonic richness to achieve key moments of emotional impact.

Even in that piece, critic Alex Ross wrote, “The music implies more than it says.”  But he probably wouldn’t say that upon hearing the lush 30-minute piece The Tower and the Garden. It’s a work of great emotional generosity, with the kind of harmonic presence needed go to the heart of the text without being troubled by any linear operatic narrative.

Spears set three poems that deal with maintaining a spiritual life amid the informational chaos and deteriorating ecology of our time. The words of the first movement (repeated as the closing movement) were by Thomas Merton, the visionary Trappist monk – specifically, poem 80 from the Cables to the Ace collection, this one about Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, with the sleeping apostles suggesting the indifference of the larger world to suffering. Denise Levertov’s In the Land of Shinar takes a modern look at the Tower of Babel story, and the third text was from Dungeness Documentary by Keith Garebian, about the filmmaker Derek Jarman as he was dying of AIDS in a rural English house strangely situated between the beach and a nuclear power plant.

Such a poetic gallery of images prompted a wide-ranging musical response, one afforded by the no-limits capabilities of The Crossing, along with a string quartet.

Each movement explored the tension between contemplation and more earthly forward motion. Periodically, the music was held at a standstill, with some gently grinding interior dissonances that told you this repose was temporary – if, in fact, it really was repose. The string quartet writing sometimes suggested a static Elizabethan-era viol consort, but often it employed (if not quoted) the kind of consoling, rocking-back-and-forth motion heard in the string writing of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3.

Beyond that, the vocal writing was about dramatizing the text – sometimes very dramatically. In the middle movement on Levertov’s Tower of Babel text, the music built sequentially into something of a shriek as the words described the tower rising further and further; the effect was vaguely comparable the “Wild Nights” movement from John Adams’s Harmonium.

That second movement especially spoke to my inner addict, the part of me that always wants more of everything. Not that I’m alone in that. Ours is a world where anything legitimate must grow and anything stationary is automatically moving backward. We all know that stillness exists in our world, but outside of a yoga class, isn’t that a well-kept secret? In any case, Spears’s harmonies bordered on saturated, certainly something that you could immediately take to your heart.

The other pieces on the program were shorter but no less significant in their own ways. If the name Joel Puckett isn’t etched into your brain, it should be. His Enter the Earth was a fascinating piece, using a Kalahari hunter-gatherer’s description of a mystical journey into the earth he experiences as he hears others sing.

Puckett’s score contrasts the smallness of human beings (sometimes characterized by small solo voices) with the earth’s power and magnitude. The moment when the harmonies fan out with the words “Then you return to where everyone else is” was a grand dramatic gesture and a breathtaking technical feat. How much credit for that achievement goes to the composer and how much to conductor Donald Nally is hard to say; I’m just glad that it happened. I also wondered how many (if any) other choirs could pull off effects like the quiet, intense harmonic humming heard in the beginning of the piece.

Not having anything close to a comprehensive view of composer James Primosch, I find it hard to characterize how his voice has evolved. But I can say the composer I heard around 2000, when I first started sampling Philadelphia’s local compositional talent, is extremely different from what I heard on Saturday in the piece Carthage, set to an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping.

Previously, I had thought of Primosch as a post-George Rochberg composer, tonal but with some sharp edges and a taste for complexity; maybe writing for the voices of The Crossing has led him into something more essential. This piece (also a world premiere) uses something resembling plainchant as a starting point, taking from that world a sense of a religiously concentrated melodic line. There’s plenty of harmonic sophistication, and some blue notes – some of the bluest notes this side of Coltrane – that tell you this music is very much a product of our time.

The Crossing has big plans for Primosch in future months and seasons. We’ll talk more about him when I have a critical mass of his music to contemplate.

For rather different reasons, I must be provisional in the face of Toivo Tulev’s Walt Whitman setting, “A child said, what is the grass.” Though Nally gave a brilliant technical explication of the work in the pre-concert talk, the performance delivered the kind of information overload one sometimes experiences with 14th-century isorhythmic motets: You’re not sure what the words are doing there with that music, much less what the composer wants them to say.

 

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