Nally leaving top choral post in 2011

Donald Nally's The Crossing, formed in 2005, is a profes- sional chamber choir that sings new repertoire.
Donald Nally's The Crossing, formed in 2005, is a profes- sional chamber choir that sings new repertoire.

He's departing Lyric Opera of Chicago, cast- ing his lot with his own choir here, The Crossing.

Posted: July 27, 2010

By now, nobody in Philadelphia should be surprised that conductor Donald Nally is making a hard-to-explain departure: Lyric Opera of Chicago is expected to announce this week that chorus master Nally is leaving at the end of the 2010-11 season to spend more time with his Philadelphia choir, The Crossing.

What wasn't said: He's leaving one of the top positions of its kind (Chicago's previous chorus master is now at the Metropolitan Opera) - with uncertain financial prospects.

"The Crossing is a full-time job at this point but it just doesn't pay that," Nally said last week during a break in recording sessions in Chestnut Hill with his Philadelphia group. "But I'm going to be 50, which isn't old, but it's a marker. . . . and you wonder what the next 20 years of your professional life will look like."

The choice comes down to preparing assigned repertoire for performances under other conductors or choosing his own repertoire, conducting performances that are increasingly well-attended in Philadelphia, and recording for Navona, the Naxos-distributed label that also put out the Kile Smith Vespers. He'll continue as music director of the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati.

With Nally more often in Philadelphia, The Crossing's activities will increase, but maybe not dramatically or immediately. The Month of Moderns Festival, held in July this year, will move back to June. But despite pressure to give more concerts in Center City, Nally is sticking to his Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill headquarters, if only because he'd rather play to one full church than two half-filled ones.

"We know the audience for choral music is limited and the audience for new music is limited and the cross section of those two things is going to be even more limited," he said. "Our board says it's a struggle" to raise funds. "But it feels really fun. Somehow, we're getting there."

Formed in 2005, The Crossing is one of a handful of all-professional American chamber choirs that sing challenging new repertoire. Numbering about 25 singers, The Crossing began as a collection of professional colleagues that gave concerts at odd times of the year when better-paying commitments wouldn't get in the way.

The group now has an annual budget of $110,000. The Month of Moderns presents up to three newly commissioned works, including one this year by the noted composer David Lang. The Crossing makes its debut at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival Sept. 12 as part of the Bang on a Can marathon.

Such concerts weren't typical of Nally's earlier years in Philadelphia. Born in Bucks County and educated at Westminster Choir College among other places, Nally was a faculty member at West Chester University starting in 1992. Over the last decade, he has conducted more traditional concerts as head of St. Mark's Church Choir in Philadelphia and the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia from 1998 to 2002.

He divested himself of his Philadelphia positions, which also included chorus master for the Opera Company of Philadelphia, before departing for the Welsh National Opera. However, he left that position about five years ago and took time off before going to Chicago in 2007. "I love the colleagues that I work with," he said. "I'm not unhappy there."


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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