How do you talk about private lives in public?
New music fulfills its mandate when it's a sounding board for making better sense of modern life. Much of The Crossing's retrospective concert, Reprise 2, Sunday at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill went a step further: In the opening piece, Kile Smith's imaginative settings of Paul Celan's poems in Where Flames a Word address the listener directly - on matters you'd hesitate to discuss among friends.
Some moments in this 2009 piece were relatively plain and semi-declamatory; others had words tumbling all over one another, leading up to ecstatic moments warranted by Celan's contemplations of nature so sensual as to be sexual. Is it a great piece? Probably, but we won't know that until more hearings over several years. Recognition on that level is like canonization: It takes a while. And though the Crossing's first performances tend to be amazingly confident, these Reprise concerts allow listeners and performers to fathom this music more fully, particularly given the Crossing's increasing capacity for expressing exaltation.
In his Little Girl Match Passion of 2007, David Lang developed a distinctive manner of handling words. On Sunday, the Crossing revisited his 2011 piece i live in pain, modeled on the poems of 12th-century female poet Beatriz de Dia, using the same musical language in a different with disarming effect. When she writes of self-sabotage amid loss of once-in-a-lifetime love, Lang goes beyond merely coloring each line, building a larger construction suggesting the inner life in which this crisis unfolds. David Shapiro's 2008 It is Time, another Celan-based piece, examined public displays of affection within narrow harmonic boundaries at first. Later, climactic chords crumbled and regrouped into something sturdier - to great effect.
In contrast, Gabriel Jackson's 2013 Rigwreck dramatized poet Pierre Joris' Allen Ginsburg-style howl about the British Petroleum disaster in Louisiana with out-of-joint rhythms, words spat out sporadically, sometimes spoken more than sung. It's impressive, packing so many means of expression in a single piece, but felt impersonal compared to other works on the concert. But I'm glad Crossing director Donald Nally programmed it before the subject matter is eclipsed by the next ecological scandal.
Similarly, Ted Hearne doesn't hesitate to beat you over the head in his 2009 Privilege with the words to an anti-apartheid song, sung fortissimo by a solo voice within the chorus. Even if the piece feels like history in years to come, it serves a great purpose now.