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The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Meet the Bienen alums, faculty nominated in the 2024 Grammy Awards

Illustration by Lillian Ali
Nominees include members of “The Crossing” and “Third Coast Percussion.”

The 66th Grammy Awards were heavy with Northwestern nominees. 16 Bienen alumni and faculty were nominated this year across three categories — Best Choral Performance, Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance and Best Classical Compendium.

The Daily spoke with a few of the NU-affiliated nominees in advance of the awards. Not all nominees responded to requests for interviews by publication time. 

Donald Nally 

Bienen Prof. emeritus Donald Nally said he didn’t start the professional chamber choir group, “The Crossing,” with the intention that it would be a “thing.” 

During his time as chorus master at the Welsh National Opera and while working with a variety of different choral groups in the early 2000s, the group emerged, beginning with an informal concert performed by Nally and his friends.

“We thought it would be fun to get back together and do a concert,” Nally said. “It turned out it was pretty good. So we did another one, and then we did another one. We just grew and grew and grew. And this is our 19th season.”

Nally, who was the John W. Beattie Chair of Music at NU, is the conductor of “The Crossing,” a musical group based in Philadelphia that largely focuses on the performance, presentation and composition of new musical pieces.

“There’s a great role in my life for historical music, but I am interested in identifying what are the topics that really define our world and then how music describes and defines our world through those topics,” Nally said.

Nally says he sees the work “The Crossing” does, performing pieces that tell today’s stories, as a type of journalism.  

Their most recent work, “Carols after a Plague,” is an exploration of this idea, featuring the original work of twelve composers. The album is nominated for Best Choral Performance, the group’s ninth nomination in eight years.

The album aims to be an objective look and presentation that touches on prominent societal issues including the COVID-19 pandemic, recent racial justice movements in the United States and wealth distribution. 

“I wanted to pose to these composers an idea: ‘What does ‘carol’ mean to you, and what does a ‘plague’ mean to you?’” Nally said. “Some of those composers chose to go right for the experience of isolation in the pandemic and some of them did much broader strokes, and then some of them chose to be very hopeful.”

Kevin Vondrak 

One of Kevin Vondrak’s (Bienen ’17) favorite things about his time in Bienen’s Master’s in Choral Conducting program was its collaborative nature, which allowed him to engage with a wide variety of different departments across the school. 

During his time studying at Bienen, Vondrak, now the assistant conductor and artistic associate for “The Crossing,” had the opportunity to work with instrumentalists in student-led opera performances, team up with composers in composition faculty’s classes and collaborate with different peer-led voice groups like the undergraduate ensemble “The Renaissance Singers.” 

While Vondrak appreciated the collaborative environment of the program, he said he also enjoyed its emphasis on new music, something he says is less common among university-level choral programs. 

“It’s really important to me to engage with art that helps us to understand the world that we live in today, as well as all of the history and tradition that has brought us to this point,” he said.

Working with “The Crossing,” Vondrak has had the opportunity to further experiment with new music, coordinating the group’s artistic considerations for all of their performances, producing and studio recordings and coordinating marketing and social media efforts for the group.

“We have a very unique voice at ‘The Crossing’ — a very unique way that we talk about art and the way that we position ourselves in that conversation,” Vondrak said.

For Vondrak, this means cultivating a certain level of objectivity in all that the group does — with everything from their performances to their music selection to their social media posts.

“We have a very objective way that we look at new works, specifically relating to the topics we like to engage with, which are very relevant to contemporary society,” Vondrak said. “When we engage with these topics, we approach them with a level of objectivity that gives context but doesn’t either affirm feelings that you already have toward the topics or tell you how to feel about them.”

Lauren Kelly 

As a child, Lauren Kelly (Bienen ‘19) remembers spending time in basement rehearsals with the Pennsylvania Girlchoir, listening to the voices of another choir rehearsing in the church above them. 

Later, as Kelly would come to find out, the singers she was hearing were members of “The Crossing” — a group she would eventually come to sing for as an adult. 

“Joining [the Pennsylvania Girlchoir] was like, ‘Oh, this is the thing I want to do for the rest of my life,’” Kelly said. “Then I just threw myself into it, went to every all-state in high school, went to Westminster Choir College for undergrad, and was like, ‘I love making music with other people, and I want to sing with people for the rest of my life.’”

After graduating from Westminster, Kelly found herself in what she calls “that awful post-grad stage.” At the time, her next-door neighbor was working for “The Crossing” and asked Kelly if she would like to go with him to sell CDs at one of the group’s concerts. 

A few weeks later, Kelly became the group’s production manager.

“I did that for a year, and I saw all these people, and I was like, ‘These are my people, and they all come from this one source,’” Kelly said. “They all stemmed from this one feeder program, and that’s Northwestern, and I have to go to that environment.”

“The Crossing” led her to NU, where she studied voice performance, experimented with different types of vocal performance and musical mediums and even met her future husband. 

“It sounds so cliché and very ‘pamphlet-y’ to say, but it really opened my mind to new possibilities,” Kelly said. “I went in so single-mindedly. I wanted to be a professional chorister, and (Northwestern) was a place I could do that. I now do so many things that I didn’t think would be a possibility for me if it wasn’t for Northwestern.”

After graduating, Kelly became a core member of “The Crossing,” performing with them on several of their Grammy-nominated albums, including “Born.” Despite the recognition gained from the latest Grammy-nominated album, “Carols after a Plague,” Kelly notes that awards, while beneficial for reaching a broader audience, are not the primary focus of “The Crossing’s” work.

“Awards are great, and they feel super good,” Kelly said. “But no artistry can come out of shooting for accolades and recognition. It’s not the reason we do this.” 

Dimitri German

Growing up with a church music minister father and a number of other musical family members, Dimitri German (Bienen ‘16) started his journey  in the music world at a very early age. After staying involved with music throughout high school, German studied vocal performance during his undergraduate years at Moody Bible Institute of Chicago and later again at Northwestern for his master’s.

After graduation, German stayed in Chicago, getting involved in a variety of local ensemble groups based in the area, like the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Chorus. However, most of his traveling for singing has been for “The Crossing,” flying to Philadelphia to sing with Donald Nally and the rest of the choir. 

“I first sang with ‘The Crossing’ the summer after my first year at Northwestern,” German said. “I came in at a really fun moment — their second nomination for a Grammy was the first recording I did with them, and I was like, ‘Wow, this group’s really got something going on, and people are paying attention.’” 

German also sang on the recording of “The Crossing’s” album “Born,” which also won the Grammy award for Best Choral Performance in 2023. 

“There’s a joke going around “The Crossing” for a while that I had a curse on me, because I was on all of the recordings that were nominated but none of the ones that had won,” German said. “Last year broke the curse, which I was thrilled about.” 

The group records their albums in a wooden church in a town on the outskirts of Philadelphia called Malvern.

“We spend six to eight hours a day in this small, wooden sanctuary, reading our music, doing take after take, taking breaks, having snacks and getting Philly cheesesteaks,” German said. “It’s fun but can be a very stressful process. You have to know your music really well, which is tricky because often, with the nature of our music, it didn’t exist a month ago.” 

Elisa Sutherland 

Elisa Sutherland (Bienen and Weinberg ’12, Bienen ’14) is a Grammy nominee for her vocal performance on the album “Carols after a Plague” by “The Crossing.” 

During her childhood, Sutherland studied the violin and bassoon and was an active member of the theater community, which ultimately led her to pursue vocal performance at NU.

“(Vocal performance) seemed like a good blending of being able to embody characters, and be on stage and then also study all of this repertoire I really loved,” Sutherland said.

Sutherland graduated from NU with a Bienen-Weinberg dual bachelor’s degree in English and Voice & Opera. In addition, she received a master’s of music degree, specializing in voice and opera, from Bienen. 

During her time at NU, Sutherland said she enjoyed being able to attend a variety of theater and musical performances. She loved the flexibility of NU’s undergraduate curriculum and having access to a variety of different classes.

“The Crossing” commissioned 12 new pieces on its carol theme, which Sutherland described as the group’s “Christmas offering.” 

Forgoing a traditional Christian theme, the album allowed composers to reflect and write on the challenges of the pandemic. It premiered during the 2021 holiday season and is currently a nominee in the best choral performance category at the 66th Grammy Awards ceremony. “The Crossing” has previously won three Grammy Awards. 

Third Coast Percussion (Robert Dillon, David Skidmore, Sean Connors, Peter Martin)

This year, Third Coast Percussion is nominated for the seventh time at the Grammy Awards in the Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance category for their album, “Between Breaths.” The Grammy Award-winning ensemble features four Bienen alumni: Sean Connors (Bienen ‘06), Robert Dillon (Bienen ‘02), Peter Martin (Bienen ‘04 ‘11), DMus, and David Skidmore (Bienen ‘05). 

The Third Coast Percussion ensemble formed within Bienen’s tight-knit percussion cohort almost two decades ago. 

“We were all inspired by the music we got to play at Northwestern, and we wanted to do the same music professionally,” Skidmore said.

Since then, the group has won many accolades, including a Grammy for their album “Steve Reich,” an adaptation of work by composer Steve Reich, whom they studied while at NU. 

Their album “Between Breaths” is nominated for a Grammy in the Best Ensemble Performance category this year. The album includes pieces composed by members of the quartet, pieces commissioned by other composers and existing pieces. 

“It was inspired by what we and most people went through during the COVID pandemic and the need for balance coming out of the time,” Skidmore said. 

The quartet co-composed two pieces on the album, “In Practice: No. 1” and “In Practice: No. 2,” which initially started as a sound meditation but transformed into an epic journey inspired by daily rituals. 

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X: @TabithaParent12

Email: [email protected] 

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