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Hats off to Matthew Aucoin for Crossing at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in New York

Hats off to Matthew Aucoin for Crossing at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in New York

October 10
12:16 2017

Crossing, which had its New York premiere last week at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, shows Matthew Aucoin, now all of 27, to be not only attuned to the zeitgeist but also prodigiously talented — he wrote both the score, rich in its harmonic language and variety of idiom, and the libretto (or those parts that are not the actual words of Walt Whitman, America’s pre-eminent poet and philosopher). And he conducted the piece. Hats off.

A fictionalised account of Whitman’s time volunteering in a field hospital during the Civil War, its opening line “What is this thing, between us?” (from his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”) speaks of separation (that of a nation at war with itself) as well as connection (that between Whitman and one of the wounded soldiers). It serves both as springboard and touchstone for this remarkable work, written for four soloists, male chorus and orchestra. The orchestral writing is intensely rich, thick, and sometimes relentlessly full of ideas. It is not free of the ubiquitous arpeggiation that seems to be today’s equivalent of the 19th-century oom-pah-pah-pah, but in Aucoin’s hands that proves less annoying than sometimes.

Rod Gilfry (left) and Alexander Lewis in ‘Crossing’ © Richard Termine

Necessarily dominated by the central character of Walt Whitman, here portrayed less as The Poet and more as Everyman, and finely sung with suitable gravitas by baritone Rod Gilfry, this is nonetheless a true ensemble piece. The superb 11-voice male chorus functions both as clearly defined individual soldiers and as the collective, which is reflected in the writing: at times contrapuntal, at times a mass of individual notes, at times in perfect harmony. Alexander Lewis gives a harrowing tenor performance as the traitorous Thomas Wormley, the soldier with whom Whitman becomes involved, and the lone female voice of the Messenger is sung with crystalline purity by Jennifer Zetlan. But one of the most memorable moments comes from Freddie Stowers, a soldier returning from the front. Sung by the honey-voiced bass baritone Davóne Tines, his gorgeous aria leaves both Whitman and the audience equally stunned.

The ensemble A Far Cry, augmented by wind, brass and percussion, plays with passion and technical virtuosity, from the opening bass growl to the ear-splitting piccolo toward the end, only occasionally overwhelming the singers in their exuberance. The production and design are sparse but imaginative, serving the music and story well, although the dancers seem somewhat gratuitous. This is 100 uninterrupted minutes of reflection on “Who are we, America?” and the horrendous cost of war. Walt Whitman has never seemed so relevant.


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