The Crossing and Piffaro Combine in Kile Smith’s “Vespers”

 United StatesUnited States Kile Smith:“Vespers”: Piffaro, The Crossing, Donald Nally (conductor), Park Avenue Christian Church, New York City, 9.1.2012 (BH)

Last fall, Philadelphia’s virtuoso choir, The Crossing, made its overdue New York debut in James Dillon’s epic Nine Rivers, staged with the International Contemporary Ensemble at Miller Theatre. As that concert showed (lest there be any doubt) there is probably little in the choral canon that this group cannot handle. Director Donald Nally has shaped the ensemble into one known for its exacting intonation and ability to handle some of the most challenging scores written.

For its second New York appearance – this time at Park Avenue Christian Church – the group went to the opposite end of the musical timeline and brought Piffaro, the superb Renaissance ensemble directed by Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken, to perform Kile Smith’s Vespers. Mr. Smith, who teaches in Philadelphia, was inspired by Lutheran liturgical music to create a roughly hour-long set – primarily for the combined forces, with some a cappella episodes and a few interludes for the instruments alone. (A recording was made in 2008 and is available on Navona Records.)

The work’s thirteen sections, using texts from traditional Lutheran hymns as well as Psalms from the Bible, roam through chant-like passages and modal harmonies, usually on the transparent side, and the tempi are generally slow, showing affinity with the reverence found in Smith’s Renaissance forbears. (The closing “Deo gratias” is a jubilant exception.) I don’t quite know what to make of the piece itself, which to these ears seemed a bit “too much of a good thing,” with textures more similar than different. Others in the large audience clearly found it mesmerizing, judging from the healthy applause at the conclusion.

The meticulous sound of The Crossing’s 24 voices combined beautifully with the seven members of Piffaro (each of whom play as many as five different instruments), making colorful contributions with recorders, dulcians, shawms, sackbuts, lute and theorbo, and the result sounded glowing in the church’s reverberant acoustic. But after awhile, my ear was hungry some of the more pungent dissonances that this choir executes with such precision.

Bruce Hodges