Grammy-winning chamber choir entwines music with poetry at Yale
On Sept. 18, The Crossing performed three pieces at Battell Chapel, exploring nature, loss and the human body through choral music.
Courtesy of Yara Chami
The Crossing, a Grammy-winning professional chamber choir, visited Yale last Monday to perform three recently commissioned pieces, maintaining its dedication to a new generation of choir music.
Originally invited by the Yale Glee Club to perform on campus in the fall of 2020, The Crossing’s plans were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Jeffrey Douma, director of the Glee Club, expressed his excitement at finally being able to bring the chamber choir to Yale.
“Over the last 10 to 15 years, they’ve become one of the most important professional choirs in the United States, especially in terms of championing new work,” Douma said.
Monday’s program put a range of contemporary compositional styles on show. The evening started off with an atonal piece, “At Which Point” by Wang Lu, set to the poems “Beckoned” and “The Sounding” by Pulitzer-winning poet Forrest Gander. Using a musical style called word-painting, in which the melody of a song reflects the meaning of the words, the performers situated the audience within a soundscape evocative of the poem’s vivid images — an experience heightened by The Crossing’s vocal quality and the lucidity of their overtones near the end.
Regarding the composition, attendee Lukas Bacho ’25 felt that the music detracted from the poems instead of adding to them.
“By word-painting every line, I felt like it gave into the tendency I’ve seen in a lot of contemporary choral music to show off impressive skill in a way that shies away from beauty,” Bacho said.
The chorus then moved into more conventional tonality in its second piece, “Singsong.” Set to words by Pulitzer-winning poet Rita Dove and composed by Tania León, the piece includes multiple virtuosic passages for the flute as well as a choral part.
Claire Chase, a renowned flutist with hundreds of world premieres under her belt, surprised the audience with an exhibition that pushed the technical bounds of flute playing. Chase’s energy captivated the audience, especially during the more novel passages that involved “flute beatboxing,” while The Crossing seemed to play more of a supporting role.
“Infinite Body,” written by The Crossing’s inaugural resident composer and Yale Glee Club alumna Ayanna Woods ’15, ended the night with the most evident emotional through line.
Focusing on tension between the body’s natural state and the demands of capitalism, Woods, through her writing, begs audience members to pause and reconnect with themselves in a productivity-driven society.
In the second movement, “One Body,” a droning middle part and recurring patterns of notes evoke Kafkaesque images of chugging factory wheels and monotony. The Crossing ironically repeats, “maximize your down time! / maximize your energy! / maximize your productivity! / turn into a better you!” poking fun at burnout culture.
“Infinite Body” is rooted in Woods’ personal experience. A few months before her time with The Crossing, she experienced a serious concussion that continued into her residency. Since then, she has had to balance her healthcare needs and her excitement about her work.
“It took a long time [for me] to fully believe the fact that my relationship with my body is going to be a priority to everything,” she said.
To Woods, the idea that people are humans before anything else has a fundamental connection to the natural world and to the natural state of our bodies. “Infinite Body” ends with a soaring fourth movement titled “Golden Hour,” where the harmonies are meant to evoke images of sunbeams.
This is the final idea that she leaves with the audience: “My love, our time / on Earth is made / of sunlight — and you, / beaming at me / golden.”
Though Monday’s performance was primarily an auditory experience, it featured a key visual element. As The Crossing sang, two television screens beside the chorus displayed the lyrics, one or two lines at a time.
Attendee Lila Schweinfurth ’25 noted that the visual presence of the text “relieved some of The Crossing’s need for express diction,” enabling them to move away from the deliberately overdone pronunciation of “choral speak.”
In the three commissioned pieces, fragments of the original text are jumbled in ways that could prompt new connections between phrases.
When parts of the text repeated later in the music, the television screens stayed blank instead of showing the same lines once more.
“On the screen, you get a blank in between the written lines, but what you really get is a musical echo,” Schweinfurth said. “I think it really adds another dimension to the piece.”
Meanwhile, Bacho wished that each line was not displayed independently of the whole text, noting that the wider context could easily be lost with a visual hyperfocus on the current moment.
The Crossing’s precise cutoffs, tone matching and balance between different voice parts contributed to a cohesive artistic vision. Schweinfurth remarked on the members’ ability to both stand out as stylistically unique soloists and blend in with the ensemble.
“After they finished their solos and went right back into the choir, you could never tell that they were there,” Schweinfurth said.
Maya Khurana ’24, manager of the Glee Club, touched on the significance of The Crossing’s visit to members of musical groups on campus. With prior chamber choir experience herself, she found it insightful to witness in person what a professional chamber choir could be like.
While the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted The Crossing’s original plans for a 2020 visit, this delayed arrival to the University also revived Woods’ musical contributions at Yale.
The moment was meaningful to both Woods and the Glee Club, which had included another of Woods’ pieces, “Archive Alive,” in their repertoire last season.
“It was very, very special to have these two parts of my world collide,” Woods said about bringing her music for The Crossing back to Yale. “And to have the celebration of the culmination of this year, like to be brought home, was really beautiful for me.”
The Crossing is scheduled to perform at the University of Pennsylvania on Oct. 14.