Pulitzer-winning work by David Lang superbly presented by Evolution Contemporary Music Series
Every now and then, you get lucky enough to be blown away by hearing a piece of music for the first time. I had that experience Monday night at An die Musik, where the Evolution Contemporary Music Series presented a performance of David Lang's "The Little Match Girl Passion," a work inspired by a sobering Hans Christian Anderson story.
Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music, this score does what great works of art always do -- it takes you outside of yourself into another place and brings you back to yourself, changed in some way.
The only disappointment, given the roughly 40-minute duration of the composition, was that it didn't get performed twice. I'm sure the sold-out crowd would have gladly stayed for a complete encore.
Chalk the event up as a major achievement of the Evolution enterprise, founded and directed by Judah Adashi. Along with Mobtown Modern, the wide-ranging series has elevated and enriched Baltimore's new music scene enormously, and this particular presentation strikes me as an extraordinarily substantive contribution.
"The Little Match Girl Passion" provides a contemporary take on the centuries-old form of the Passion, the retelling of Christ's final days. Bach's profound efforts in this field are, of course, the best known. Lang found much to consider in Anderson's story about the poor girl who is beaten by her father, tries to earn money selling matches on the street, and freezes to death. Imagery in this dark tale recalls the life and death of Christ, but Lang did not set out to do a religious work (as the composer says in his program note, "There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus").
This is a work about purity, poverty and suffering -- and, at least as I see it, a work about the
tragedy of an uncaring world, a place where too many people choose not to see the pain around them so they can concentrate on fattening themselves (and, these days, avoiding any extra taxes).
However you read the libretto -- Lang wrote his own, based on Anderson's story and also the writings of H. P. Paulli, Picander (librettist for Bach's St. Matthew Passion) and the gospel of Matthew -- it's a powerful statement.
Lang scored the work for four singers (the standard SABT); the performers also are called upon to play percussion instruments that add subtle dots of color to the soundscape. Much happens in 15 short movements.
The musical style is spare, but lyrical, often resonant of chant. During the descriptive movements about the girl's plight -- roaming the street in bare feet, the visions she has when she strikes matches in hopes of some warmth -- the singers' lines often overlap, creating subtly shifting harmonies. A colorful, recurring device involves the repetition of syllables on the same note (I was reminded of Monteverdi).
The reflective passages, which play a role akin to that of the chorales in Bach's Passions, achieve remarkably poetic effects, nowhere more movingly than in the 13th movement: "When it is time for me to go, don't go from me; when it is time for me to leave, don't leave me; when it is time for me to die, stay with me; when I am most scared, stay with me."
The performance, effectively conducted by Adashi, featured soprano Elizabeth Hungerford, also Kristen Dubenion-Smith, tenor Lee Mills and bass Michael Droettboom. These were not typical classical-sounding singers; they had a wonderfully natural sound and style, which enabled them to communicate the texts all the more compellingly.
No wonder the concert room was so still and quiet throughout the performance (save for the inevitable cell phone). "The Little Match Girl Passion" proved to be quite the spell-binder. It's still haunting me the morning after.
PHOTO OF DAVID LANG (by Peter Serling), TOP, COURTESY OF DAVIDLANGMUSIC.COM; PHOTO OF JUDAH ADASHI (by Jacqueline Poullauf) COURTESY OF JUDAHADASHI.COM