United States Various: Scott Dettra (organ), The Crossing / Donald Nally (conductor). Gartner Auditorium at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 25.3.2022. (MSJ)
Lansing D. McLoskey – The Memory of Rain
Arvo Pärt – Salve Regina
Stacy Garrop – In a House Besieged
The Philadelphia-based chamber choir The Crossing premiered a new work by Stacy Garrop in this concert at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which commissioned it in memory of Robert G. Schneider who was long involved with the museum. In a House Besieged takes on the subject of aging in settings of flash fiction stories by contemporary American writer Lydia Davis. It was an impressive piece, ranging from hypnotic to hallucinogenic, presented with great skill and care.
The piece opens with a prologue that saw the women of the choir uncertainly vocalizing syllables while the men began chanting the opening of a Davis poem. These elements were to return as linking interludes throughout, only completing their statements at the end of the work. Running under the interludes and in substantial moments was a series of virtuosic organ solos, played with fiery brilliance and steely control by Scott Dettra.
The first movement, ‘A Natural Disaster’, depicts a couple determined to stay in their home as water begins to rise inexorably and inundate the property, a terrifyingly apt metaphor for aging. As the couple watches, they begin to see fish swimming through the branches of their tree, and an eel looking up at them from beneath the wheelbarrow. Garrop’s music for this was hypnotic, post-minimalist in its dissonance and free-ranging associations, but using a minimalistic sense of waves of repeated tropes. It cast a spell and immediately created tension, the singers intoning the complex harmonies with rock-solid pitch. The second movement, ‘Almost No Memory’, was about a sharp-minded woman who had lost her memory and kept notebooks to anchor her. The music was kinetic scherzo that blew off steam without resolving the tension.
‘The Cottages’, the central slow movement, offered warmth. It tells the story of a woman going to bed in the evening and watching the darkening woods. The calm warmth turns to chill as the text says ‘she is not so much watching as waiting’. The fourth movement, ‘Order’, portrayed a woman struggling with housekeeping in a place falling apart around her. It was a careening scherzo, even wilder than the second movement, and the singers demonstrated tremendous rhythmical assurance as they negotiated the music under conductor Donald Nally’s firm direction.
The fifth movement, ‘In a House Besieged’, finds a couple living in a house besieged by small explosions they cannot explain. It brought back the hypnotic music of the first movement, then deftly segued into the epilogue, which wrapped up the running series of interludes. The women had been trying all this time to assemble the syllables of the word ‘woman’, and the men were putting together the lines of Davis’s most famous piece, ‘The Busy Road’: ‘I am so used to it by now / That when the traffic falls silent / I think a storm is coming’. It ended quietly but terrifyingly with a small gasp from the vocalists. The performance was authoritative, and Garrop was present to receive the audience’s enthusiastic ovation.
The skillful programming of the concert helped the Garrop work make maximum impact, for the first half of the concert built up considerable tension while remaining so subdued that the new composition seemed to unleash the buildup. The concert opened with Lansing D. McLoskey’s The Memory of Rain, written over a decade ago for The Crossing. It set poems by Philip Levine in a dynamic rarely rising above piano, with the organ accompaniment restricted to just a few notes. Severe and dirge-like, the piece made the following Salve Regina by the so-called ‘holy minimalist’ Arvo Pärt feel like a warm, if anxious, embrace. The sweet sadness of the Pärt builds to a climax near the end, which was the first forte of the evening.
The singers of The Crossing encompassed the demands of each piece, ranging from conventional beauty through glissandos and extended vocal techniques. Donald Nally led with vigor, mapping the ebb and flow of the program as one long narrative arc, with brilliant support from Scott Dettra on the Gartner Auditorium’s impressive pipe organ.
The Cleveland Museum of Art has a long history of supporting modern music with programs like this and has often hosted The Crossing. This concert marked the highly-anticipated resumption of the museum’s programming after the Covid hiatus, and it promises to bring many more worthwhile experiences.
Mark Sebastian Jordan