My brave, little heart took the leap out of the safety of my German village homebase for a day. This past Wednesday, I traveled (in quite an appropriate direction) northwest to witness the European premier of “The Crossing,” which is a professional choral ensemble based out of Philadelphia and directed by my choral director at Northwestern University, Donal Nally. “The Crossing” and Nally have received two GRAMMYs over the past two years for their choral performances, so I was not about to miss this opportunity.
I knew I was cursed the moment I entered the FlixBus. For those of you that are not twenty-years old and/or looking to engage with cheap, terrifying, or unethical modes of transport, FlixBus is a bus service that will drag a low-budget traveler all over Europe on trips ranging anywhere from 2 to 20+ hours. Here is how I entered the FlixBus:
Truly and already a European legend, optimistically on my way to Amsterdam. To flavor this post with some foreshadowing, I will now include how I left Amsterdam. Not cute.
Nonetheless, I arrived in the Netherlands quite joyously. I had already been last November, but the canals and bridges and pink flowers were as spectacular as ever. There is something so refreshing in the air (unless you find yourself outside a Coffeeshop, of course): so many people biking around, constant reminders of water on every walk, colorful signs singing against the neutral facades of the classic Dutch architecture. You truly feel the pace of the city as twenty cyclists fly by you without warning and sometimes a small apology. Even just six hours of Flixbusing brought me to an entirely different lifestyle than the soft-pretzel village life of Kriftel.
I took a ten minute train over to the city of Haarlem, which is exactly like Amsterdam, except just a few meters shorter and vastly more preserved, as it faced less attacks during WWII. Many of the original Cathedrals still stand with preserved stained glass, which is sadly not the case for most of the gorgeous churches of Amsterdam.
Among the passing bikes and running waters, I was able to grab a bite to eat with my Northwestern friend and the current assistant director of “The Crossing,” Kevin Vondrak. We shared two pizzas at a table next to the composer of Aniara, which was the performance I would see by “The Crossing” later that evening. I was also delighted to get a visit by Donald Nally and catch him up on my studies of Baha’i choral music.
The performance itself was SUBLIME. I have never heard “The Crossing” live, but I tell you, there was surely some of my own spiritual crossing over during this performance. Nally takes more of a “straight-tone” approach to choral performance, which is common for early music and contemporary choral ensembles; Nally instructs the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble (BCE), the choir that I am a part of at NU, to sing with less vibrato, in this “straigh-tone” performance practice.
This style of vocal production allows for less interruption or variation in the pitch’s frequency and therefore the harmony of each chord is more easily heard and more overtones are produced, which gives the sound aesthetic a different (and arguably better) color and depth. Straightone choral singing also allows for an easier, more consistent unification of voices, which gives the artistic expression of “one voice alone.” Such a performance practice fits nicely with sacred music of the Renaissance and Baroque, which often had homophonic chants, hymns, and chorales. In terms of reception, the text of the choral song is easier to hear when the choir sings without vibrato, and in sacred spaces, the textual content of the song is often of great importance to achieve the didactic goals of the music. Nonetheless, with the rise of bel canto, the Italian vocal pedagogy for operatic singing beginning in the late 18th century, choral singing shifted to feature more vibrato, which turned the artistic expression of the choir to “many voices together.”. From this shift, Late Classical and Romantic composers like Beethoven for example, embraced the artistic possibilities of larger and less unified aesthetic of choral singing and produced works like the 9th Symphony, which evokes imagery of a collection of individual voices through the bel canto-inspired choral affect. This form can have vastly different rhetoric from the single-voice sound of sacred choirs, and in the case of the 9th Symphony, is used to aesthetically symbolize the diverse brotherhood coming together to witness something divine. This difference between forms and affects has been explored by Van Gilmer at the 13th Annual Baha’i Choral Festival, to heighten the amount of sonic diversity of the program.
Aniara was a wonderful work of choral performance art. The stage was set on the floor in a rectangular space with the audience facing in on two aisles on both long edges of the stage, facing inward. The performers moved in and out for about 90 minutes, with textures changing almost every thirty seconds: the entire ensemble would sing homophonically one moment, and the next, there would be a polyphonic quartet of singers, and so on. With planned movement around the stage, it was interesting to experience the sound dynamics based on which singers were close and which were father from my seat.
This spacial set up made me think a lot about space in Baha’i choral performances as well; even noting the difference between the spacial practices of the North American Baha’i Temple choir–singing from the hidden, 2nd-floor choir loft–and the European Baha’i Temple choir–singing in front of the devotional attendees–there could be an interesting difference in the attendee reception of devotional music based on the spacial placement of the choir.
I hurriedly left the performance, only to–my deepest tragedy–miss my FlixBus back! And no customer service number to call! Nothing! I was Cosette, sweeping and weeping! But I decided to pick my sweaty bones up, grab a heaping plate of fries, and eventually hop on a train back to the safe cobblestoned roads of Kriftel. If I have learned anything from my brief sojourn in the Netherlands, it is that I deeply miss singing with Donald Nally, I need to give myself at least an hour of buffer time with schedule transportation, and I will NEVER take a FlixBus again (though this is likely a lie… they’re so cheap!)