A Match Made in Passion

July 27, 2014

CARMEL BACH FESTIVAL

Andrew MegillMost programs at the Carmel Bach Festival are performed twice or sometimes even three times over the course of the festival. Sunday evening’s concert at the Sunset Center, however, was a unique performance, with a particularly intriguing repertoire far removed from Bach’s time.

For several years, Andrew Megill, the festival’s choral director, has been waiting for a chance to pair up Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with a recent reinterpretation of the Passion concept, David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion. This strange and haunting work was written in 2007 and unexpectedly won the Pulitzer Prize for music.

It seemed to Lang that Hans Christian Andersen’s tragedy of the Little Match Girl — depicting its titular character freezing to death in the snow as she lights the matches she’s failed to sell, in a desperate attempt to keep warm — has something in common with the Christian Passion: the suffering, scorned innocent; the mixture of bleakest tragedy with visions of glory as the girl sees visions of a warm Christmas and her beloved dead grandmother in the matches’ flames; and her transfiguration after her death.

Lang set the tale to music in the structural form of Bach’s St. Matthew: recitative chunks of the story alternating with more elaborately scored commentaries on the story’s meaning or resonance at that point. Lang adapts translations of texts from the Bach work for this purpose, though his version lacks the former’s spiritual resonance, in particular the exhortations on how to behave in response to the situation.

So on Sunday afternoon the Festival put on its second performance of the St. Matthew Passion — which SFCV reviewed last week — and followed it in the evening with the Little Match Girl Passion. I attended both concerts, and found the juxtaposition impressively meaningful.

Each work did what the Carmel Bach Festival is particularly good at: make a lengthy composition of near-placidity of tone move along vigorously, keeping the audience focused.

The music of Lang is nothing like that of Bach, yet the spirit of the performances had some similarity. Despite the emotional intensity of their stories, each was presented in a cool-toned, contemplative manner. Each had clarity and lightness, a transparency aimed for in this performance of the Bach and native to the Lang. Each did what the Carmel Bach Festival is particularly good at: make a lengthy composition of near-placidity of tone move along vigorously, keeping the audience focused. The Lang lasts about 45 minutes, a mere quarter of the span of Bach’s masterwork, yet that’s still long enough that it needs to compel attention.

Lang sets his music for four solo singers, each also playing one or two percussion instruments (bass drum, xylophone, sleigh bells, and so on) wielded lightly and judiciously throughout the piece. Megill, who also provided what conducting was necessary, sang tenor, and three singers from the Festival Chorale, whose contributions had been the summit of the excellent performances in the Bach, took the other three parts.

Lang composes in a stark, postminimalist style, usually with one voice taking the lead and the others echoing or repeating words or intertwining them, holding notes or fragmenting them, either in high piping or in a soft lower range. The overall feeling is of a deliberate, cautious chill.

For most of the recitative sections, the narrative was carried by alto Kathleen Flynn, a fine bit of casting as she had the most forward and intense voice of the performers, clear and gentle. She told the prose tale in short bursts separated by silence, longer in the middle of the story than toward the ends, in repeating near-monotonic musical phrases.

The narrative was carried by alto Kathleen Flynn, a fine bit of casting as she had the most forward and intense voice of the performers, clear and gentle.

The commentary pieces were more varied: some in near-continuous line, some with repeated fragmented words tossing over each other, a couple even spoken rather than sung. Soprano Rebecca Mariman carried out her high-pitched words and vocalise passages with beauty and grace. Megill had several passages of repetitive mumbling or of high falsetto, blended well into the mix. Avery Griffin, who sang Peter in the Bach, is one of the lightest-toned basses out there, contributing a bottom voice far more implied than conspicuous.

Altogether, it made for a striking and memorable performance. Although I’d heard recordings of it before, it became clear that the Little Match Girl Passion is a work that must be experienced in live performance.

To fill out the concert, Megill conducted the unaccompanied Festival Chorus in three brief contemporary works by composers known as “holy minimalists”: Europeans whose religiously meditative music aims at the same immediacy and directness as minimalism, using consonance, drones, and other shared techniques.

The Festival Chorus, amateur singers with some members of the professional Chorale salted in, actually compared favorably to the Chorale, especially in their best performance, that of Henryk Górecki’s Totus Tuus. This Latin hymn to the Virgin Mary is built on a gently rocking rhythm and builds between homophony and rich tonal harmonies. Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat Antiphons, in German, are somewhat more conventional in shape and harmony, allowing for some tangy dissonance and the popping in of subsidiary sections of the chorus to repeat words, a technique that Lang also uses.

The most striking work of the program was John Tavener’s Song for Athene, an antiphonic work presented with spatial separation. The main body of the chorus, the women and tenors, were onstage to sing the verses, while four basses stationed in one aisle sang the alleluia chorus and a larger group of basses in the other aisle held the F’s in octaves that anchor the entire work. It had the same slow contemplation as the Bach and Lang, with a stark beauty all its own.

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.