Penn Live Arts Blog

The Month of Moderns 2021

Posted May 25, 2021

New Music U.S. Premiere World Premieres

The Crossing is grateful to be presented by Annenberg Center, our frequent partner.

Entering our second summer of a global pandemic, it could be easy to feel things are quickly returning to “normal,” due to the amazing efficiency of scientists, a surprisingly responsible government (we’d come to expect the opposite), and vigilance on the part of our singers. Yet, the wounds are deep, and the virus lingers nearby, worse than ever in parts of the world that are not able to invest the extraordinary resources available to us in the United States.

I say this because our festival this summer - while being a full Month of Moderns, with three different programs in three weeks – is anything but “normal.” Entirely outside, designed for distance and safety during the pandemic, and capturing this moment in time – a moment when we are confused in balancing hope and caution, fear and defiance, all couched in humility. So, the works we sing this summer address these emotions head on, and that makes me more excited than ever for a Month of Moderns because not only will we be together, but we’ll be mining every bit of what we’ve been through.

Matana Roberts’ “we got time.” holds the central position in our festival – the only work on the middle concert, born of last summer’s protests and of the hope that at some point, soon, women like Breonna Taylor will no longer be lost to murder. It’s a quilted work – a world of textures, of individual expression, and of improvisation as a means to developing the parts and panels of the emotional landscape. And it is a work of memory, so appropriate to a place of memory – a cemetery, The Woodlands.

Memory dominates Wang Lu’s At which point, a work titled for the many repetitions of that phrase in Forrest Ganders’ amazing poem, Beckoning. It’s amazing for its frank, raw journey that captures the illness and death of the poet’s wife from cancer. Lu’s score is like an ongoing, florid recitative – a musical language bursting with potential song yet intent on the concentrated delivery of words. Transparent and fragile, each phrase from one singer to another, across the rolling meadow of Awbury Arboretum. A musical landscape, a visual landscape, and 24 singers spread across a field, a metaphor for our pandemic experience: alone, wanting, needing others.

Those are the recurring themes of The Month of Moderns 2021, which does indeed offer a small portrait of our time. The opening concert, The Forest – a walk in the woods at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve - is a work that we developed in-house, with words by the singers and music by Kevin, our assistant conductor, and me. The metaphor of need: the relationship between singer and choir, tree and forest. Individual, alone, beautiful, yet depending on the entire community to define its role – to live. Living is the essence of David Lang’s the sense of senses, in which everything that is tasted, touched, seen, heard, and smelled in the Song of Songs is distilled to just that: feeling, hearing, etc. It is our world, the way we experience it.

Finally, Ayanna Woods’ expansion on her earlier pandemic-time work, Shift, reminds us that the way in which we experience the world depends on who we are, where we come from, how we perceive others: “Bursting through the cracks in the story you tell, America.”

Storytelling. That’s what singers do. Hopefully the stories of The Month of Moderns 2021 do not betray us, are not made of the stuff of ill-begotten monuments, are not reflective of the lies we combat daily, but are a record of our time – a presentation of facts, of resilience and optimism, in compelling musical contexts through which we recognize ourselves and connect. That’s what we’re after at The Crossing: connecting. So much planning and preparation for something so simple and innately human. Joy in singing.

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