Donald Nally is responsible for imagining, programming, commissioning, and conducting at The Crossing, the Grammy-nominated, internationally recognized new-music choir in Philadelphia. He is also the John W. Beattie Chair in Music and Director of Choral Organizations at Northwestern University. He has held distinguished tenures as chorus master for Lyric Opera of Chicago, Welsh National Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Spoleto USA, The Chicago Bach Project, and for many seasons at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. He has served as artistic director of the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati and the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia.
Among the many ensembles Donald has guest conducted are the Latvian State Choir in Riga, the Grant Park Symphony Chorus in Chicago, the Philharmonic Chorus of London, and the Santa Fe Desert Chorale. His ensembles have sung with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pennsylvania Ballet, Spoleto USA, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonia Cymru, RAI National Symphony Orchestra, and ICE; his work is heard on numerous recordings on the Chandos, Cantaloupe, Navona, Albany and Innova record labels.
Donald is the recipient of the distinguished alumni merit award from Westminster Choir College. Chorus America has awarded him the Louis Botto Award for Innovative Action and Entrepreneurial Zeal, as well as the Michael Korn Founders Award for Development of the Professional Choral Art. He is the only conductor to have two ensembles receive the Margaret Hillis Award for Excellence in Choral Music - in 2002 with The Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia, and in 2015 with The Crossing. His book, Conversations with Joseph Flummerfelt, was published in 2011.
What is the story of how you first came to love music and opera?
I was too young to remember exactly; I’ve just always been a musician who loves the theatre. (Though, it’s probably more accurate to say that I am too old too remember exactly or even inexactly.)
What is the biggest challenge you face as an artist?
Time management: how doing the thing you love to do with some measure of accountability makes it difficult to find the time to do the thing you love to do. For example, I can’t study while filling out questionnaires.
Who inspires you?
The poets Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Jaime Sabine, and Philip Levine; the singers Morgana King, Nina Simone, and Roberta Flack; the playwrights Tom Stoppard, Seneca, and Sam Shepard; the composers Ted Hearne, Claudio Monteverdi, and Josquin des Prez; the activists Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren, and Anthony Romero; the physicists Richard Feynman, Erwin Schrodinger, and Benoit Mandelbrot; the Tao, Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas but not so much of those other gospels, Shakespeare, and Peter Sellars (except when he makes a soprano wear a canvas bag over her head while singing a Handel aria).
Do you have a favorite opera?
Probably Berg’s Lulu. It has recognizable personas combined with astonishing compositional technique. But, no, not really a favorite. Act II of Jenufa - great. Act II of Tosca is good. (This is not true of all Act IIs; for example, Act II of Butterfly and of Fanciulla del West have Puccini in a one-man contest for worst moments in opera.) Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero is a very moving work. I’m a sucker for a lot of Parsifal.
Do you have any favorite books about music?
My latest favorite is Pascal Quinard’s “The Hatred of Music”; it’s a great book. But, mostly I don’t read about music. I do enjoy Penderecki’s “Labyrinth of Time” and get that out once in awhile.
What else are you reading?
I always have a copy of the Tao, Leaves of Grass, and Hart Crane’s collected poems with me. So, those don’t count. Been ripping through a lot of Italo Calvino and Susan Sontag lately - some rereading, some new.
Who are your favorite 17th and 18th century composers?
Buxtehude, Bach (J.S.), and Handel. I am not a big Mozart fan, though I enjoy his sense of humor and ability to grab our hearts in his opera finales. I am not a Haydn fan and there isn’t anything else to say on that one.
If you were stranded on a desert island, is there one piece of music you would like to have with you?
Berg’s Violin concerto (because when you get to that clarinet quartet on Es ist Genug, that about sums it up….especially if you’re stuck on a desert island). Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (because you can never really finish studying it, so there’d always be something to do). Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (because I imagine I’d get pretty depressed and Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben would make for good company).
What do you love about HOC?
Craig Trompeter is an amazing musician.
What is your favorite thing to do when you’re not making art?
That’s all I do (these responses are in ABA form). Oh, I also read, so that’s not making art, it’s consuming it.
What is the first thing you think about in the morning?
What I forgot to do the day before.
Do you have any heroes/heroines?
Of the living, probably Noam Chomsky and maybe Barack Obama, the former because he’s so devoted to the truth as he sees it and the latter because he is an example of grace. So, we have truth and we have grace, the building blocks of a respectable life. Of the dead, probably Freud and Shakespeare; there is a certain kind of objective clarity in their observations of the world that cause a subjective response in the reader/listener. I strive for that in my art and hold high their achievements as a result.
What music do you listen to most often?
I very seldom listen to music and it is when my partner and I are making dinner, so it’s not too serious. Most of my listening is to files that have been sent to me by composers who are sharing their work with me.
If you had not entered into your current career what do you think you would have done instead?
Died. Also, I wish I could do what I do and live in the middle of nowhere.