the crossing @ christmas
The Jeffrey Dinsmore Memorial Concerts
Donald Nally, conductor
Friday, December 14, 2018 @ 8pm
Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square
presented by Annenberg Center Live
Sunday, December 16, 2018 @ 5pm
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill
pre-concert talk at 4pm in the Burleigh Cruikshank Memorial Chapel
Vertue (2005) Judith Weir
We Bloomed In Spring (2014) Edie Hill
A Native Hill (2018) † Gavin Bryars
—world premiere of the December 2018 version—
1. But the sense of the past
2. The Path
3. Sea Level
4. The Pool
5. The Road
a blue true dream of sky (2003) Judith Weir
Poem for 2084 (1996) Edie Hill
Shining light (2009) Joanne Metcalf
† The world premiere of the complete twelve-movement work will take place Friday June 28, 2019, at 5pm at The Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square. The work will be recorded for commercial release at that time.
This concert is being recorded for broadcast at 10am on Christmas Day by our partner WRTI, 90.1 FM, Philadelphia’s Classical and Jazz Public Radio.
PROGRAM NOTES AND TEXTS
A note from Donald on the beautiful privilege of programming:
Sometimes “Life” happens. When it does, and we’re listening to the universe, it opens opportunities we didn’t realize were there – opportunities with immediate resonance, that are of the moment. So it went this Fall with our new work from Gavin Bryars, A Native Hill – a gift to The Crossing from the composer, an extraordinary gesture of generosity marking a five-year relationship of friendship and artistic collaboration. “Life” happened and Gavin’s yet incomplete twelve-movement, concert-length work will receive its premiere, not this weekend, but in late June. In the meantime, we have about half of A Native Hill, and, with that half, the opportunity to fill out a program with works by others who, in their art, consider similar questions, taking us on a journey of renewal and love, exploring the curatorial responsibility we have to our Earth and the natural world.
Each December, we in the Northern Hemisphere complete the Earth’s seemingly endless cycle of light and darkness, reaching, once again, the longest night of the year. That night marks a new beginning as we revisit our journey toward the longest day. With that journey comes our seasons, and, with those seasons, complex relationships as we interact with the natural world that responds so delicately to light and darkness, cold and warm, water and dryness – all things that we humans have largely overcome and put aside. This increasing distance from the simple logic of our many relatives in the plant and animal world inspired my enthusiasm when Gavin suggested texts of Wendell Berry, inviting the opportunity at Christmastime to address our desire – our need – for connection to a delicate system that, without us, moves through its own logic of apparent death and rebirth. Nature has its own advent, its own Easter, and its own Christmas, and has much to teach, or to re-teach, us. This is a fundamental tenet of Berry’s writing.
The search for just the right works to complement Gavin’s incomplete opus was a welcome journey; I went deep into the Wendell Berry texts that form his libretto – the observations of a rural man, contemplating how we care for the Earth that we carve and reorganize, on which we leave our marks, on which we depend, and which daily reminds us of our own ephemerality. Words leap at us from the works I found: season’d timber, rose and Spring; seasons of life, leaves of God; natural, infinite; rivers and oceans, purify and heal. I imagined all of this – the woods, the leaves, the rivers and seasons, as I experienced it as a child: a cold December night, under a halo of stars that illuminate the plowed, snow-covered fields waiting patiently to be re-seeded and to give, again. Joanne Metcalf calls this halo the “star-hall,” and beckons it to “shine,” which it does and will, with or without our looking up in wonder. That seemed like a culmination – a good place to pause, for now.
Thank you, Gavin. “Life” happening to you means we have an alternate journey this evening – a rich and thoughtful one – and a gift yet to come, when the Earth is renewed.
Judith Weir (b. 1954)
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridle of the earth and sky;
The dew shall weep thy fall to night,
For thou must die.
Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye;
Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.
Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My music shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.
Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like seasoned timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.
—from The Temple, George Herbert (1593-1633), English modernized from the original
We Bloomed In Spring
Edie Hill (b. 1962)
bloomed in Spring.
are the leaves of God.
The apparent seasons of life and death
our eyes can suffer;
but our souls, dear. I will just say this forthright:
they are God
we will never perish
—St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) from Love Poems from God, translated by Daniel Ladinsky (b. 1948). Used with permission.
A Native Hill
Gavin Bryars (b. 1943)
A Native Hill is a gift of the composer to The Crossing, Donald Nally, and Tony Creamer.
a note from the composer...
Being with The Crossing
Looking back through my correspondence I was surprised to find that it is now seven years since Donald was first in touch with me, following an introduction from Tony Creamer, about working with The Crossing on a new piece. I hadn't realised until I trawled through emails that even in December 2011, the ideas for our first work were very clear in his mind. He already knew he wanted us to work with the saxophone quartet Prism, and it was only a few months later hat he pointed me in the direction of Thomas Traherne for our text. I only wish I had that focus and clarity of purpose...
Over the following weeks and months I listened to recordings of the choir and eventually visited them in Philadelphia. Writing The Fifth Century was a pleasure from beginning to end, and spending time with them during the period of the premiere and recording was a revelation: all the qualities that I had found in the recordings were there in abundance but the impact of being in the same space was very powerful and their combined voices far more beautiful and refined. Last year we were together at the Big Ears Festival in Tennessee, and then later for a week of music making at Big Sky, Montana, where I got to know more of the choir individually, spent time in their company, and our friendships became closer. I even played the harmonium part in my choral piece On Photography and there can't be many composers who have on their CV that they played with The Crossing, the Hilliard Ensemble, and the Latvian Radio Choir...
It was at Big Ears that I mentioned quite casually to Tony Creamer that I had enjoyed working with the choir so much that I'd like to offer the gift of a new piece: not a commission but an expression of friendship and gratitude. Donald contacted me within what seemed like a few minutes... This time I researched the text myself (though speaking regularly with Donald) - and for me this is often the longest part of the compositional process with vocal works. I had come across the work of Wendell Berry in a review of his poetry and I obtained many collections of his writings, both poetry and prose. The reviewer had compared him to Thoreau (I spent last summer reading Thoreau each morning after breakfast). And while there is something of the older writer's understated political and social observation, Berry's themes have a powerful contemporary relevance that go beyond what might be read as pastoral at first sight. I have taken texts for what will eventually be a twelve-part work from an early essay A Native Hill (1968) where detailed descriptions of the minutiae of his rural existence (he has lived and worked on a farm in Kentucky for over 50 years) reveal themselves as profound meditations on how life should be lived. Simple natural events reveal themselves as metaphors for universal truths. Curiously, and without contrivance, his visionary prose contains many of the insights that we find in Traherne, with an equivalently profound metaphysical, social and even political force.
Billesdon, December 2018
I. But the sense of the past
But the sense of the past also gives a deep richness and resonance to nearly everything I see here. It is partly the sense that what I now see, other men that I have known once saw, and partly that this knowledge provides an imaginative access to what I do not know. I think of the country as a kind of palimpsest scrawled over with the coming and goings of people, the erasure of time already in process even as the marks of passage are put down. There are the ritual marks of neighbourhood - roads, paths between houses. There are the domestic paths from house to barns and outbuildings and gardens, farm roads through the pasture gates. There are the wanderings of hunters and searchers after lost stock, and the speculative or meditative or inquisitive 'walking around' of farmers on wet days and Sundays. There is the spiralling geometry of the round of implements in fields and the passing and returning, scratches of ploughs across croplands. Often these have filled an interval, an opening, between the retreat of the forest from the virgin ground and the forest's return to ground that has been worn out and given up. In the woods here one often finds cairns of stones picked up out of the furrows, gullies left by bad farming, forgotten roads, stone chimneys of houses long rotted away or burned.
II. The Path
The dog runs ahead, prancing and looking back, knowing the way we are about to go. This is a walk well established with us - a route in our minds as well as on the ground. There is a sort of mystery in the establishment of these ways. Anytime one crosses a given stretch of country with some frequency, no matter how wanderingly one begins, the tendency is always toward habit. By the third or fourth trip, without realizing it, one is following a fixed path, going the way one went before. After that, one may still wander, but only by deliberation, and when there is no need to hurry, or when the mind wanders rather than the feet, one returns to the old route. Familiarity has begun. One has made a relationship with the landscape, and the form and the symbol and the enactment of the relationship is the path. These paths of mine are seldom worn on the ground. They are habits of mind, directions and turns. They are as personal as old shoes. My feet are comfortable in them.
III. Sea Level
Underlying this country, nine hundred feet below the highest ridgetops, more than four hundred feet below the surface of the river, is sea level. We seldom think of it here; we are a long way from the coast, and the sea is alien to us. And yet the attraction of sea level dwells in this country as an ideal dwells in a man's mind. All our rains go in search of it and, departing, they have carved the land in a shape that is fluent and falling. The streams branch like vines, and between the branches the land rises steeply and then rounds and gentles into the long narrowing fingers of ridgeland. Near the heads of the streams even the steepest land was not too long ago farmed and kept cleared. But now it has been given up and the woods is returning. The wild is flowing back like a tide. The arable ridgetops reach out above the gathered trees like headlands into the sea, bearing their human burdens of fences and houses and barns, crops and roads.
IV. The Pool
Not far from the beginning of the woods, and set deep in the earth in the bottom of the hollow, is a rock-walled pool not a lot bigger than a bathtub. The wall is still nearly as straight and tight as when it was built. It makes a neatly turned narrow horseshoe, the open end downstream. This is a historical ruin, dug here either to catch and hold the water of the little branch, or to collect the water of a spring whose vein broke to the surface here - it is probably no longer possible to know which. The pool is filled with earth now, and grass grows in it. And the branch bends around it, cut down to the bare rock, a torrent after heavy rain, other times bone dry...
V. The Road
Like the pasture gates, the streams are great collectors of comings and going. The streams go down, and paths always go down besides streams. For a while I walk along an old wagon road that is buried in leaves - a fragment, beginningless and endless as the middle of a sentence on some scrap of papyrus. There is a cedar whose branches reach over this road, and under the branches I find the leavings of two kills of some bird of prey. The most recent is a pile of blue jay feathers. The other has been rained on and is not identifiable. How little we know. How little of this was intended or expected by any man. The road that has become the grave of men's passages has led to the woods.
And I say to myself: Here is your road
without beginning or end, appearing
out of the earth and ending in it, bearing
no load but the hawk's kill, and the leaves
building earth on it, something more
to be borne. Tracks fill with earth
and return to absence. The road was worn
by men bearing earth along it. They have come
to endlessness. In their passing
they could not stay in, trees have risen
and stand still. It is leading to the dark,
to mornings where you are not. Here
is your road, beginningless and endless as God.
—A Native Hill, Wendell Berry (b. 1934), excerpted by the composer
a blue true dream of sky
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
—e.e. cummings (1894-1962)
Poem for 2084
My breath has become water.
Chokecherries and wild roses
grow from the ashes of my bones.
You who wake in human form,
healthy and vigorous,
above the root-shaped rocks,
take heart, evolutionary spirits,
you would never appear.
If the rivers and oceans
have begun to purify,
if the lead contaminated earth
has begun to heal,
if the mind has grown
less separate from other minds,
rejoice - call
your family and friends
to hear these words
of a dead poet:
gather rosehips for tea,
share bread with chokecherry jelly…
—from The Divided Sphere, Joan Wolf Prefontaine (b. 1949). Used by permission.
words and music by Joanne Metcalf (b. 1958)
o shining light
o star-shine gold
jewel of the star-hall
heaven’s sparkling gem
shimmering flower of the field of angels
luminous, radiant, bright
lux lucens in tenebris [light shining in darkness
loquitur animae stella the star that speaks to the soul]
oh, shine in light
Kelly Ann Bixby
Donald Nally, conductor
Kevin Vondrak, assistant conductor
John Grecia, keyboards
John Conahan and Mark Livshits, guest rehearsal accompanists
* Daniel Spratlan appears through a generous donation from Beth Van de Water in memory of Hank Van de Water. Sponsoring a singer is a great way to support The Crossing – to do so, speak to any member, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Special thanks to John Conahan and Daniel Schwartz for assistance with the musical instruments heard this evening.