Primary tabs

Keeper of the Passion's Flame

December 4, 2009

Pacific Edge Voices

Since Christmas celebrates the birth of the Holy Son, a piece about the death of an earthly girl might seem out of place on a holiday concert. This weekend, though, the Pacific Mozart Ensemble, the Grammy-nominated chorus directed by Lynne Morrow and Richard Grant, delivered a winter concert that revolved around precisely such a piece.

The centerpiece of Friday night's concert in the Green Room of San Francisco's War Memorial Building was David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music. It sets Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about a destitute little girl who attempts to sell matches on the street, where she freezes to death on New Year’s Day.

The “Passion” within Lang’s title makes sense because he understands Andersen’s tale as a Christian parable, in which the suffering of the innocent girl parallels the Passion of Christ. Also it evokes the famous St. Matthew Passion of J.S. Bach. Bach’s composition sets the gospel text, but also intersperses other texts that convey the reactions of those observing Christ’s suffering. Similarly, Lang intersperses Andersen’s story with other points of view to create shifts in the narrative voice between the girl herself, a neutral narrator, and the collective voice of observers on the street. Lang fashioned his own libretto, in English, from multiple sources.

Significantly, Lang’s piece differs from Bach’s in its musical style and orchestration. The Little Match Girl calls for neither an orchestra nor prominent vocal soloists who sing specific roles. In fact, Lang premiered the work as a chamber piece with only four vocalists. Pacific Mozart Ensemble performed a version for full chorus. Both versions incorporate sparse accompaniment by both pitched and nonpitched percussion instruments.

Lang’s piece is divided into 15 numbered. The musical style varies among them, but syllabic choral declamation and layered, minimalist-inspired textures predominate. These characteristics put a contemporary spin on the traditional modes of recitative and chorale.

Near the close of the work, the freezing girl hallucinates, and sees her deceased grandmother, the only person who had ever loved her. The girl dies as she lights a bundle of matches to warm herself and to illuminate her vision of her grandmother. Her death is plainly told. For example, in “When it is time for me to go,” the chorus deliberately stutters its consonants, mimicking the little lips that tremble from both fear and cold.

One striking point about Lang’s work is that, although the grandmother does take the girl to heaven, musically her transfiguration is an understated affair. Instead of seeming inadequate, though, this un-heavenly setting fits this secular Passion. Just as no one helped the suffering girl while she was alive, the low-key musical portrayal of her ascent to heaven conveys, similarly, “No one imagined ... into what glory she had entered.” Through both its singing and its histrionics, this deliberate nonchalance was well-executed by PME.

I have now heard this piece performed both by soloists and by full choir, and I admit to preferring the soloist version, despite the precision delivered by PME. The solo voices, along with the austere accompaniment and minimalist textures, create a chillingly intimate, barefaced presentation of Andersen’s story. Although I thought the full choir diminished that deeply personal effect, in either version, Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion is a stimulating and unique musical drama, and PME performed it well.

Like Lang’s piece, other works on the program also featured female characters. They included Benjamin Britten’s well-known Hymn to St. Cecilia; excerpts from Veljo Thormis’ Vespa Rjad, which is a cycle of Vespian folk songs; and Dance, a short piece by a young composer named Ilya Demutsky. Meanwhile, settings of sacred texts helped to conjure Christmastide. They included a setting from Ecclesiastes by Michael Roberts, an Ave Maria setting that Sanford Dole wrote for the ensemble in 2007, a setting of Veni, Veni, Emmanuel by Cary Boyce, and a setting of Psalm 121 by Dave Brubeck. That final setting numbers among the many Brubeck works that the ensemble has recently recorded.

The program ended with a few spirituals, followed by an audience sing-along of traditional Christmas carols. This conclusion, which convivially brought the audience together, starkly contrasted with the message of lonely suffering in Lang’s Little Match Girl. Then again, Lang’s own piece prompts its listeners to reflect on their own complicity in such suffering, and thus illuminates this same contrast between communal celebration and individual suffering during the winter holidays. We can hope, though, that this somber reflection on worldly woes ultimately yields a cheery holiday spirit of intensified compassion, charity, and good will.

Jessica Balik is a flutist and has a PhD in historical musicology from Stanford University.