Source: Becky Oehlers Photography
Most people would react to a Grammy nomination with smiles, celebration, maybe even tears of joy. Director of choral organizations Donald Nally’s initial reaction was pleased, but far more laid-back: “It was just kind of like ‘Yeah okay, this again,’” he said, laughing.
Nally, Northwestern’s John W. Beattie Chair of Music, received his second Grammy nomination for his direction of English composer Gavin Bryars’ “The Fifth Century,” performed by his chamber choir The Crossing in collaboration with award-winning chamber ensemble PRISM Quartet.
Nally is nominated for best choral performance, the same category he was in last year for The Crossing’s recording of Thomas Lloyd’s “Bonhoeffer.”
Founded in 2005, The Crossing is a professional chamber choir dedicated to contemporary music, according to their website. The group of 38 vocalists regularly performs works from modern composers that are written for the group.
Nally said development for “The Fifth Century” began in 2013 after he commissioned a work from Bryars, who was a “very close friend of a very close friend.” Nally suggested using the works of theologian Thomas Traherne as inspiration for the piece.
Bryars took immediate interest in Traherne’s writings and was ready to begin crafting the piece when, in the spring of 2014, Jeffrey Dinsmore, co-founder of The Crossing, died of a heart attack right before one of the choir’s rehearsals, Nally said.
Spurred by the passing of such a crucial member of the group, Bryars decided to create a series of movements based on Traherne’s writings about eternity. The nine-track, 50-minute “The Fifth Century” naturally came to fruition.
The Crossing typically performs works that address social issues, but Nally said “The Fifth Century” is a departure from this norm.
“The Crossing does a lot of pieces that have some background in social advocacy because that’s what I want to commission,” Nally said. “This piece actually doesn’t do that. It’s a very beautiful and profound meditation on what is to be alive.”
Nally said the piece creates a “feeling of timelessness,” with long, drawn-out words that seem to slow down time.
Robert Eisentrout (Bienen ’15), a current member of The Crossing, said the work contemplates themes like the vastness of the world and feels like “the longest piece” he’s ever sung.
“When I’m singing it, I think, ‘Will this ever end?’ but at the same time, it is truly special because of its meditative quality and the way you can zone out in this aural atmosphere that it creates,” Eisentrout said.
Nally said he identified this project as the perfect collaboration between The Crossing and PRISM quartet because of the “color world” implied by Traherne’s writings that would lend itself well to the saxophone timbre.
Bienen Prof. Taimur Sullivan, a member of PRISM quartet, said the piece is unlike most works that the group performs, describing it as “hauntingly beautiful.”
“It’s really quite gratifying to play, to be sort of encompassed in this sort of lush orchestration of these voices and these haunting vocal lines,” Sullivan said. “The saxophone itself has a very vocal quality. … (Bryars) melds that in with the voices in a really beautiful way.”
The Crossing will come to NU in March for a four-day residency through the Bienen School of Music, culminating in a concert on March 16 where the group will showcase Michael Gordon’s “Anonymous Man.”
This year’s Grammy Awards, held in recent years in Los Angeles, will take place in New York this Sunday, coinciding with the award ceremony’s 60th anniversary.
Nally said he will not be in attendance.
As The Crossing is based out of Philadelphia, Nally travels to the East Coast almost every weekend. The day of the Grammys fell on the one weekend this quarter he doesn’t have to make the trip, he said.
“I just decided that I’m not going back to the East Coast to sit in Madison Square Garden and hear someone else’s name called for our award category,” Nally said, laughing. “So yeah, not going.”
Although Nally is not expecting to claim the Grammy, he said he hopes the nomination will draw more listeners to The Crossing and his groups at NU. He considers himself “the most fortunate person” to be able to work with groups of musicians on a daily basis who put up with his sometimes “crazy” ideas.
“The greatest thing about (the nomination) is that it brings attention to a new piece of music that we were a part of creating and that I believe in wholeheartedly,” Nally said. “I love this piece of music … and now a whole lot more people have heard the title Gavin Bryars’ ‘Fifth Century,’ so that’s huge for me.”
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