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The Crossing heralds peace and reflection in its Christmas concert

The Crossing's 2022 Christmas concert, at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill on Dec. 18.
Kevin Vondrak
The Crossing
The Crossing's 2022 Christmas concert, at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill on Dec. 18.

Anyone even casually familiar with The Crossing, Philadelphia's widely acclaimed chamber choir, will know better than to expect a conventional round of fa-la-las at their annual Christmas concert. As conductor Donald Nally explains, the choir's December concerts evoke Yuletide from a pensive remove — with new works that often acknowledge the season's more complex emotional terrain.

Dayna Szyndrowski
Composer Caroline Shaw, whose 'Ochre' was a commission from The Crossing.

Two new works distinguished The Crossing's 2022 Christmas concert, which WRTI is proud to broadcast from 4 to 6 p.m. this Saturday, Christmas Eve. (Listen at WRTI 90.1 in the Philadelphia region, stream here at wrti.org, on the WRTI mobile app, or on your smart speaker.)

The first new piece is Ochre, a Caroline Shaw commission, which explores the topic of soil, and the earth beneath our feet. (Shaw's Evergreen, recognized as one of the best albums of 2022, dwells in a related headspace.) "Focusing primarily on timbres and vowels," reads an Ochre program note, "it draws on fragments of poetry framing human existence with metaphors of geologic time, iron ore, and rock; Goethe, for whom a common mineral in ochres is named; and a lament of Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez."

The other new work is Mass Transmission by Mason Bates, with Scott Dettra at the organ and sound design by Paul Vazquez. This piece considers the advent of radio and all implications of human connection and distance. (Part of the work draws on early radio transmissions "between parents in the Netherlands and their children on Java, sent there to work for the Dutch government.")

Nally serves as host in our Christmas Eve broadcast, which also features some recordings from The Crossings' past, notably the 2013 album Christmas Daybreak.

The concert happens to reach our signal just as last year's Christmas offering arrives in album form. Carols after a Plague features new pieces by a dozen contemporary composers, including Alex Berko and Tyshawn Sorey. Some of these pieces operate in a mischievous mode: "y-mas," by Nina Shekhar, incorporates text fragments of secular standards like "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

But the prevailing tone is somber, reflecting what Nally asked of each composer: "to respond to our project title, leaving it to them to address what 'Carols after a Plague' meant to them: an exercise in perspective, in experience, in histories that are widely and at times wildly different." The album features three such meditations by Shara Nova, who accompanied The Crossing for its recent appearance at NPR's Tiny Desk.

The album's opening gesture is Nova's "Carols after a Plague: Urgency." It closes, fittingly, with her "Carols after a Plague: Resolve."

Carols after a Plague is available now on New Focus Recordings. The Crossing's Christmas Eve broadcast will be carried by WRTI this Saturday, Dec. 24, 4-6 p.m.

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