Photo by Kevin Gearhart

Tonight, Philadelphia new music choir The Crossing will present an evening of post-modern Romanticism featuring two Italian masters of contemporary classical music. The program, titled “suoni provocamenti: Italian Voices,” features music by Bruno Bettinelli and Salvatore Sciarrino, both of whom cast glances back at the tradition of Italian composition while moving decidedly forward. The evening is rounded out by settings of Italian poetry by American composers Stephen Paulus and Yehuda Yannay.

“Each of our programs is a journey,” says conductor Donald Nally. “I build them so that they tell an emotional story as you go through the evening.”

The pieces by Bettinelli, who passed away in 2004, were written in the 1990s while the composer was in his eighties. “They’re really interesting five-part madrigals that reflect the Italian madrigal style of the Renaissance but are also very modern works with lush harmonies and chromatic lines,” describes Nally. “They’re all about youthful love and looking back at moments lost, an old man writing in a very youthful way but with a heavy dose of memory.”

Sciarrino’s composition, “Responsorio della Tenebrae,” alternates sections of traditional plainchant with more modern sections of keening and wailing. The piece deliberately references the similarly-named works by Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, a connection with particularly attracted the choir. “We’re really interested in the fact that post-modern music often looks back at earlier forms and styles,” Nally says. “So this fits really well with the ethos of the group.”

The remaining two pieces both take their inspiration from renowned Italian poets. Minnesota-based composer Stephen Paulus sets a number of pieces by Michelangelo written as personal offerings to friends and lovers. And Israeli-American composer Yehuda Yannay’s “Le Campane di Leopardi” is based on a poem Giacomo Leopardi that deals with insomnia.

“The Leopardi poem mirrors the Bettinelli piece in terms of the fact that Leopardi was an older person looking back at his youth with a longing for what he once had,” Nally says. “It’s a very minimal piece where the bell tower tolls all through the night as he just lies there awake, obsessing. Which I relate to.”

The Crossing’s mission, Nally explains, “is really narrow. It is to sing contemporary works for choir at a world-class standard. Most of our repertoire was written in the last fifteen years, much of it commissioned by us.”

This weekend’s program is an exception to that commissioning rule, and reflects a renewed push on the part of Nally and the choir to perform new works that often don’t have the opportunity to be heard after their premiere. The commissions return in a big way later in the season, particularly during the choir’s annual Month of Moderns, which in 2014 features works by Ted Hearne, Gavin Bryars, and winners of the Crossing’s composers competition.

The current season is titled “Astralis” after a piece by composer Wolfgang Rihm that will be the centerpiece of next month’s Christmas program. The composition sets a poem by the poet and philosopher Novalis and lends the season its loose theme. “The piece has to do with trying to reconcile memory and loss and spiritual longing with human longing,” Nally says. “I took that as the seed for the whole season, which references this romantic view of the relationship between humanity and nature.”

The Crossing was formed in 2005 when Nally, who had recently moved to Wales, returned to Philadelphia for a brief summer visit. “We were a group of friends who had all sung professionally together in Philadelphia,” he recalls, “and a bunch of us got together for a beer and started talking about how much we missed making music together. Someone suggested putting on a concert just for the heck of it, which I didn’t really take very seriously, but we rounded up fifteen of our friends and did it. The Inquirer wrote a review that asked when this would happen again, which we hadn’t even thought about because we didn’t consider ourselves an ensemble. But it was fun, so we decided to do two the next year, and here we are in our eighth season having performed at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and. We’re still pinching ourselves.”

Those eight seasons refute the popular sentiment that there is no audience for contemporary classical music, as Nally emphatically points out. “I was always told that at best you could sneak a new piece onto a program with some Mozart or something, but I never really believed that. The industry says that you’ll never sell tickets if you just do new music, but we’ve found that’s bullshit. Right here in Philadelphia – an incredible arts hub but not the largest arts hub in the country – we have an adventuresome, educated, enthusiastic audience at every single concert.”

The Crossing performs tonight at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave. The all-ages performance begins at 8 p.m., tickets are $15 and more information is available here.