Last night I finally had a chance to hear David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion. The piece is a Carnegie Hall commission that had its world premiere in 2007 with Paul Hillier’s four-member Theatre of Voice.
If you were lucky enough to catch The Little Match Girl Passion premiere at Carnegie or have listened to it on the recent recording, you may agree with the judges who awarded the 35-minute work the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. It masterfully blends the simple tragedy of the Hans Christian Andersen story about a girl going door-to-door, barefoot, selling matches on the coldest night of the year, with a Bach-style passion structure of alternating narrated story passages and vocal commentary.
Lang has now rescored the work for chorus, and that is the version that about 100 of us heard last night, at WNYC’s Greene Space down on Varick Street, with the New York Virtuoso Singers led by Harold Rosenbaum. The final section of the Passion, with its stuttered consonants from the alto soloist (“D-d-d-d-on’t g-g-g-go f-f-f-from m-m-m-me”), was stunning, managing somehow to evoke teeth-chattering and bone-chilling cold at the same time as an ecstatic reunion of the girl with her grandmother, supported by the choral singing whose vocal line functions as a kind of angelic support that carries the girl into the heavens. Making the whole thing even more otherworldly are the insistent minor-second intervals and percussion accents—the singers also play instruments like bass drum and the most dirgelike sleigh bells you ever heard. It has the same effect on me as I remember getting when reading and re-reading that story as a child. And not to get too maudlin about it, but the story is sadly even more relevant than ever, as countless scenes of street homeless like this one (which I saw on my way home from the performance) play out everywhere throughout the city.
The Lang premiere—followed by a live performance of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, a piece most famously heard in Hal Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey—was the kickoff event for a new online radio stream called Q2, a subsection of the reconstituted WQXR that promises to explore “the most adventurous corners of Western music from Gesualdo to Golijov.” (You can read more about Q2 here) John Schaefer hosted the evening and spoke before and during the concert with conductor Harold Rosenbaum and with Lang, who talked to the audience about the genesis of The Little Match Girl Passion as a way to evoke the passions of Bach while “taking Jesus out of the picture” (Much of this Lang had discussed earlier at NPR and is worth reading)
Fortunately, you have another chance to hear The Little Match Girl Passion live in New York this season, almost as cheap (at $20) as the $10 ticket price for last night’s concert. On November 22, the New York Virtuoso Singers perform the piece again—paired this time with Schutz’s St. Matthew Passion—at the resonant, incense-y St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, where I expect it will sound even better than it did in the tiny Greene Space.
Images: (top) Harold Rosenbaum conducting the New York Virtuoso Singers, (bottom) David Lang (left) and Rosenbaum, who were talking with John Schaefer (not pictured), photos by Scott Ellison Smith.