Angelic Voices for Troubled Times

Grammy-winning Bienen conductor Donald Nally is reinventing choral music, drawing on scholarship and collaboration to produce secular sagas that are both visceral and transcendent

Sunlight streams into Donald Nally’s Evanston office through a narrow window, making the space feel warm, intimate, and something of a refuge 50 feet above Lake Michigan’s roiling waves. Farther on sits hazy Chicago, a reminder of the boisterous modern complexity that informs the artistic life of Nally, a professor of conducting and ensembles at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music. He is a champion of new music, known for his willingness to grapple with difficult subjects and engage contemporary audiences in fresh ways.

“When I go to the concert hall, I want to be told a story and feel like I’ve been challenged,” Nally says. “That doesn’t happen when you do a bunch of three-minute pieces in succession and people just clap, clap, clap in between them. I decided years ago that my goal would be to create a body of choral music that says things about the world we live in and that would change the way people write for choirs and think about singing and listening to choirs.”

On Nally’s desk is a musical score he’s been annotating. His fingers casually play over a pencil, sometimes giving it an unconscious twirl as if it were an orchestral baton. He is surrounded by art and books: poetry, history, philosophy, literature, and of course musical texts. He reads a lot, he says, and considers himself fortunate to be able to convey through art his ideas about topics that are important to him, including economic inequities and other social justice issues. He frequently gestures at a title to emphasize a point he makes in conversation. (Lately, he’s dug into Pascal Quignard’s provocative Hatred of Music, an exploration of music’s power, including its dark side.) Choral music’s great appeal for him is its ability to meld two languages —  the spoken word and the musical phrase, with one influencing the “grammar” of the other and working together to articulate meaning that neither alone could do as well.

But it’s quiet in this office — surprisingly so — considering Nally’s world is immersed in sound. He’s a celebrated conductor and co-founder of The Crossing, a 24-voice virtuosic choral group based in Philadelphia that’s earned widespread acclaim for being “luminous and acute” (New York Times), “ardently angelic” (Los Angeles Times), and “something of a miracle” (Philadelphia Inquirer). See and hear them here.

“I’m a big silence person,” says Nally, the John W. Beattie Chair of Music and director of choral organizations, who joined Northwestern in 2012 after having been chorus master for the Welsh National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Opera Philadelphia, as well as guest conductor for several choirs. “If I don’t have part of every day in which sound is banished, I notice the agitation growing and feel like I’m being chased around by the sound, you know?”  For him, silence is a creative catalyst that allows invention to emerge, sometimes unexpectedly. “It’s the space ideas come from.”

Those ideas have fueled Nally’s approach to teaching and conducting: “I don’t like hierarchies, or consider myself the grand maestro,” he says. “In class, we read the Tao Te Ching and talk about real leadership. I tell my students to challenge authority all the time. When you lead, you invite people to consider ideas, and you may do that through your breath and gesture; through the manner in which you treat people, and through the ideas themselves. All of these are a huge part of a graduate program in conducting.” Working collaboratively with ensembles, he says, requires individuals to seek an “equilibrium” that allows their own ego to be balanced within the group and in service to the larger creative effort.

That collaborative spirit has also helped The Crossing to flourish. With 15 recordings since 2004, The Crossing’s accomplishments include a 2018 Grammy award for “The Fifth Century” by Gavin Bryars, a slowly evolving, seven-part composition for choir and saxophone quartet inspired by the meditative prose poems of a 17th-century English mystic. The original version was performed in an enormous warehouse —“a clean, white slate; a sort of industrial cathedral in which you have to create your own environment,” Nally says. The ensemble has also garnered three Grammy nominations, including one this year for Lansing McKloskey’s “Zealot Canticles,” an oratorio for clarinet, string quartet, and choir described as a musical plea for tolerance. It’s based on the poetry, speeches, and other writings of Wole Soyinka, the Nobel prize-winning Nigerian human rights advocate, and explores the sometimes thin line between devotion and intolerance.

When asked to sum up such creative efforts, Nally reaches for a prehistoric reference: “Much of my work is like trying to paint a bison in the darkness of the Lascaux caves. It's like feeling around in the dark for the contour of the wall and shaping the animal around that. I’m shaping a musical phrase to define and describe our world, doing it in the moment, while I’m still discovering, through the act itself, what is to be represented.”

Nally, a Pennsylvania native, grew up listening to Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey — the music of his parents, including a father who played piano by ear but didn’t really understand his son’s more avant passions. He began his musical studies as a saxophone major at age 17, but early on knew he wanted to conduct, a role he defines chiefly as being a connector and collaborator, someone who harnesses extraordinary talents and “moves them in a direction to consider important ideas,” including considerations of war, peace, race, and national identity. He’s quick to admit he offers no easy solutions: “I don’t know what the answers are. I have no clue. It’s not my job to tell you what to think, but rather to present the ideas and ask questions.”

He’s enjoyed success, even as he’s sought to redefine the very possibility of what contemporary choral music can be. In doing so, he’s pushing up against a millennium of tradition dominated by the church and liturgical music.

That’s why The Crossing — and the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble (BCE; video here) that Nally modeled on the Philadelphia group — takes a very different approach: longer commissioned works with secular themes that connect with modern audiences.

“We tell gritty stories about our non-sacred lives, stories that people recognize,” says Nally, adding that much of traditional choral music has tended to affirm conventional morality and aesthetics. “I don’t want to hear a beautiful evening of splendid choral singing that tells me war is bad and peace is good. Everybody agrees on that and you don’t need a piece of music to tell you that, right?”

His antidote to the pedestrian could mean a performance of David Lang’s “The Passing Measures,” during which one note changes in a chord every 10 seconds over 45 minutes, a foray into which he led the Northwestern Symphony Orchestra and BCE last year. (The Chicago Tribune has praised BCE’s “astonishing technical and musical proficiency” and “highly disciplined sense of pitch that would be the envy of many a professional mixed chorus.”) It could also mean a musical meditation on equality, environmental themes, or human suffering writ broadly and in a secular setting, such as The Crossing’s “Seven Responses” project. Sometimes that suffering hits close to home, as with the “Jeff Quartets,” a concert-length memorial to The Crossing’s co-founder Jeffrey Dinsmore who died in 2014 at age 42.

“It was a horrible thing we went through together; our best friend died right in front of us,” says Nally. As they worked through their grief, members of The Crossing became better listeners and more patient with one another, he says. The painful experience also translated into art: “The Fifth Century” was written as a memorial to Dinsmore, and the Fourth Movement is Nally’s favorite.

“Each movement addresses eternity in one way or another, but the Fourth is very virtuosic and challenging in a unique way,” he says. “Almost nothing happens in it. It's completely still with very, very long notes that must be perfectly tuned.”

While Nally’s teaching and conducting clearly aspire to transcend conventional notions, he has little use for rhetoric that privileges music — or art broadly — as revealing eternal verities. He entertains a more workmanlike, down-to-earth perspective.

“I hate the word ‘truth,’” he says. “It’s used all the time to mean these very esoteric things that are nonsense, you know? ‘Bach was able to create the most amazing truth.’ Bach had to go outside to relieve himself! He had an insane workload. He wasn’t thinking about truth; he was thinking about speed. He just happened to be an extraordinary genius whose hard work produced things that remind us about our own humanity.”

By Matt GolosinskiJanuary 11, 2019