Humans exist at nature’s mercy. The musicians of the Crossing and the PRISM Quartet were reminded of this last January when a nor’easter thwarted their attempt to perform a program that included Tõnu Kõrvits’s Hymns from the Western Coast. As in the hymns, “severe laws” had to be obeyed, but a “time of blossoming” eventually followed, in the form of this rescheduled, early summer performance, which featured three New York City premières.

PRISM Quartet © Jacqueline Hanna
PRISM Quartet
© Jacqueline Hanna

The program opened with Gavin Bryars’ sparkling Two Love Songs, both settings of sonnets from Petrarch’s Rime Sparse. The songs passed in brisk succession, with a beautiful, if slightly bracing, quality. Originally scored for soprano trio, the work was arranged here for a three-part chamber choir of twelve female voices. Harmonies clung together closely, tending to favor ringing, middle tones.

The first song, Io amai sempre (I have always loved), painted a portrait of love as the “sweet enemy”. Love’s duality – its power both to vanquish and to inspire hope – was exquisitely illustrated by a succession of yearning chords with unrequited resolution. The subsequent Solo et pensoso featured the voices of Kelly Ann Bixby, Karen Blanchard and Rebecca Siler. The three displayed remarkable consistency, as if each soloist were still singing as part of an ensemble, each picking up where the last left off. It was a poignant reflection of a text that describes love as an antidote to isolation.

Both the Crossing and the PRISM Quartet have a penchant for collaborations. In this way, there was a certain logic behind the pairing of choir and saxophone quartet for the original commission of The Fifth Century. Finding another piece with this unconventional orchestration, however, presented a programming challenge. Enter the Kõrvits Hymns, which proved to be a truly apt complement. Kõrvits’ intriguing texts, based on Estonian folk songs translated into Swedish for the Swedish Radio Choir, established one of the concert’s overarching themes: humility in the face of divine majesty. The opening notes from the PRISM Quartet evoked a flock of birds, as the choir’s words ascended to heaven.

The Crossing always commissions in English. So I was eager to hear the choir sing in both Italian and in Swedish tongues. However it quickly became apparent that throughout this program the Crossing would not use text – even later, in English – as a primary vehicle of expression. Ideas were instead illustrated through harmonic textures.

The second and third movements provided the Hymns’s finest moments. Alas my ship is sinking related the distant account of a shipwreck, replete with sinking glissandos, while Jesus sleeps, unknowingly, nearby. It was followed by a somber testimony of the life For skippers and boatmen, who fatalistically beseech God to hear their prayers while crossing the unforgiving seas. In the final movement, soloist Elisa Sutherland seemed to deliberately fade into the background, as a gorgeous men’s duet introduced a flurry of irregular saxophone phrases, enveloping the room in birdsong once more.

The reprise of The Fifth Century was intended to mark the beginning of an extended partnership between Bryars and the Crossing. Later this year, the Philadelphia-based choir will release an all-Bryars recording on ECM Records. The admiration is mutual: Bryars has called the Crossing “North America’s finest choir.” The sustained lines of The Fifth Century attested to the Crossing’s superb stamina and intonation. Singers leaned into the dissonances, particularly the inner voices, and Donald Nally provided lucid conducting throughout the concert.

The beauty of the music notwithstanding, I found The Fifth Century to lack structural dimension, mostly owing to the source text, Thomas Traherne’s early modern Centuries of Meditations. Bryars sought to match Traherne’s descriptions of “omnipresence”, “infinity” and “happiness eternal” with a dense thicket of sound that seemed to emerge from nowhere and disappear into nothing. The close timbres of voice and saxophone melded into one; a kind of shapelessness suffused.

Bryars’ attempt to describe the boundaries of this shapelessness was interesting and not without merit. Ascending lines peaked at increasing heights, approaching a threshold of pain. However, boundaries can only be stretched so far, and this idea left little room to maneuver beyond the first two movements. Bryars’ piece also comments on the subtle pain that attends religious exaltation. Melancholy tones swirled around texts that described “the essence of God” as “all light and knowledge, love and goodness, care and providence”. More acute strains recurred over the words “joy” and “sun”. Its detached quality unfortunately made the work pale in comparison to the concert’s earlier offerings. Still, if this was the piece that brought together these remarkable two ensembles, it was worth the effort.