Despite staging distractions, the tragic power of Lang’s “match girl passion” comes through
David Lang’s the little match girl passion won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music. Based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen, Lang conceived a score in the manner of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. His text mixes quotations from St. Matthew with a narrative of Andersen’s melancholy parable.
On Thursday night IlluminArts presented an ambitious staging of this quasi-oratorio in the auditorium of the Pérez Art Museum in downtown Miami. The free performance drew an overflow crowd.
Lang’s score fully deserved its award. Presented in its original version for four voices, the work runs the musical gamut from spare vocal lines in the mode of Renaissance chant to harmonically complex, layered textures while gradually turning ever more darker in mood and ambience. The story is recounted of a young girl sent out on New Year’s Eve in the bitter cold by her cruel father to sell matches which she lights to stay warm before freezing to death, ignored by passersby. Interludes similar to the chorales of Bach’s Passion settings are spaced between the narrative. Bass drum, bells, chimes and, strikingly, glockenspiel often accentuate the vocal writing.
The 34-minute score manages to encompass both the tragic and hopeful elements of the story. When the girl sees a vision in the sky of her dead grandmother–the only one who was ever kind to her–the voices rise as if heaven was calling the protagonist to join her. At times the percussion seems to be potently counting down the match girl’s final hours. The repeated chant of “Have mercy, my God,” accompanied by bells, is all the more powerful for its sheer simplicity. Solemn and soulful, the final chorales culminate in soft cries of “Rest soft,” with the glockenspiel gradually dying away in a unique and poignant conclusion.
All credit to IlluminArts for presenting this important 21st-century work. Yet while the musical performance was largely excellent, the presentation and venue did not work to the score’s benefit.
Lang conceived the piece as a concert score. Staging an oratorio or cantata is always problematical. While there have been successful staged productions of Bach and Handel choral works, adding an extra theatrical element can often distract as much as illuminate.
Without a text in the program or projected titles, Lang’s libretto was often indecipherable. To some extent that is because of the high-pitched harmonic blending of vocal timbres. While Andersen’s tale was once known by every child, this type of children’s literature is no longer universally taught in elementary schools. Lacking either a text or clear diction from the performers, many of the listeners were left at sea.
R.B. Schlather’s production did nothing to clarify the libretto. For most of the performance, the four singers were sitting on the floor in one corner of the hall, at times rising in emphatic response to the score and text. They were projected on a large screen seen by only the audience in the upper section. The screen also displayed audience members walking up the steps, clearly an illusion to the people who ignore the little match girl. This proved a huge distraction at the conclusion as laughter from some listeners reacting to what they saw on the screen almost drowned out the singers’ final poignant lines, sung from the bottom of the stairs. The percussionist Michael Weinfield-Zell wandered up and down stairs among the audience, seemingly an impassive witness to the narrative.
Despite the ill-conceived distractions, the four singers gave a beautiful, luminous performance of Lang’s moving score. Countertenor Brennan Hall was a standout. Alone among the vocalists, his diction was clear no matter how high in the stratosphere the vocal line took him. Hall’s purity of timbre, superb musicianship and spot on intonation mark this Orlando native as an artist to watch.
Soprano Anne Carolyn Bird encompassed both the fiendishly exposed writing in the top register and depth of expression with rich coloration and lustrous tones. Zachary James’ firm bass and Karim Sulayman’s characterful tenor strongly supported the ensemble writing. In quartet the voices were wonderfully balanced, evidencing strong preparation and collaborative skills. Weinfield-Zell handled the percussion effects deftly without being intrusive.
Lang’s work also exists in a choral version which has been more widely performed. That edition could make a fine vehicle for Miami’s superb chamber choir Seraphic Fire. Presented in a proper venue and straight concert format, the little match girl passion is a highly effective contribution to the modern vocal literature.
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Fri Jun 3, 2016
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