Seraphic Fire at their finest in Lang’s moving “Match Girl Passion”

By Lawrence Budmen

Patrick Quigley conducted Seraphic Fire in David Lang's "The Little Match Girl Passion" Wednesday night at St Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Miami. Photo: Jude Fox

Patrick Quigley conducted Seraphic Fire in David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion” Wednesday night at St Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Miami. Photo: Jude Fox

David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music and has been widely performed in both the original version for four voices and the composer’s larger choral adaptation.

Seraphic Fire presented the latter arrangement Wednesday night at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Miami as the first of the chamber choir’s “Passion” series. (Bach’s St. Matthew Passion will be presented in February and Arvo Pärt’s Passio in April.)

Lang’s score is one of the finest choral works of the young 21st century. Wednesday’s performance opened the new year with yet another high water mark for the superb choral ensemble. 

To set the stage for the Lang score, artistic director Patrick Quigley conducted three works that deal with human suffering and pleas for mercy. (Appropriately, in order to maintain the evening’s ambiance, he asked the attentive audience to wait until the end of the program before applauding.) 

Two scores by Renaissance master Josquin des Prez contrasted the personal tragedy of his teacher’s death with the traditional prayer of the Miserere. Nymphes des bois (Nymphs of the woods) was written on the death of Ockeghem, a composer, basso profundo, choral singer and des Prez’s mentor. This vignette registers deep emotion within an austere vocal and harmonic context. The individual timbres of the eight voices stood out but melded into a fine corporate blend.

Des Prez’s Miserere is a more complex, larger-scale outpouring of grief. Quigley achieved a wonderful interplay of voices with the score’s soft moments bringing particular emotional depth and resonance. Margot Rood’s pure soprano and Doug Dodson’s superb countertenor excelled in solo sections. Between the two des Prez pieces, a setting of Super flumina Babylonis (By the waters of Babylon) by Nicolas Gombert offered more adventurous harmonics and vocal colors. Quigley’s finely pointed contrasts of dynamics and tempo brought out the expressive power of Gombert’s intense version of the captives’ lamentation.

Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, The Little Match Girl, tells of a young girl who has been sent out to sell matches on New Year’s Eve by her abusive father and tragically freezes to death. Lang has set the tale as a secular passion, with Bach’s passions strongly influencing his conception. 

As in Bach’s versions of the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, Lang alternates narrative segments with meditative chorales that comment on the girl’s plight. The composer mixes the spare vocal threads of Gregorian chant with modernist twists of layered textures and terse minimalism in his fifteen-movement opus.

An ominous bass drum warns of the tragedy to come against the luminous choral textures of the opening “come, daughter.”  Quigley maintained strict rhythm through Lang’s short, sparse lines as the altos told of the child’s dire situation in “it was terribly cold” with the male voices adding a touch of warmth.

Following bass Charles Wesley Evans twice counseling “Patience,” “ah, perhaps” brought the score’s most beautiful melody as the girl begins lighting her matches to stay warm and she sees into the homes of families feasting and celebrating the holiday. The plea of “have mercy, my god” seems coolly cerebral, yet registers tremendous impact as the women’s voices tell of the girl’s desperation and accompanying chimes sound like a death knell. 

The music becomes ever darker as the tragic climax approaches. Rood’s cries in high, rounded tones and James K. Bass’s direct and clear spoken narration in “from the sixth hour” were chilling in impact. Amanda Crider’s alto rose with deep sonority over the dissonant harmonics of “when it is time for me to go.”  The simple but poignant repetitions of the words “rest, soft” in the final section “is a master stroke.

The stellar rhythmic articulation and rich colors of the thirteen voices, even in the most dissonant sections, enhanced the score’s drama and pathos. The excellent percussionist Matthew Henderson was joined by choir members on a variety of mallet instruments and bells. 

This highly original choral tale seems tailor-made for Seraphic Fire. There are four remaining performances and the opportunity to hear a major American score in an outstanding performance should not be missed.

Seraphic Fire repeats The Little Match Girl Passion 7 p.m. Thursday at Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church in Naples; 7:30 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale; and 4 p.m. Sunday at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach.


Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Thu Jan 18, 2018
at 1:02 pm
No Comments