Little Match Girl Passion.
What I like most about the An die Musik performance space in Baltimore is the low stage, which to me represents the basic spirit of the place. It’s no more than two feet high, and it extends wall-to-wall across the full forty-or-so foot width of the yellow room. There’s no curtain, for this stage is neither display-case nor pedestal. When I go to symphony halls or other elegant classical music spaces, I sometimes feel like an intruder in the courts of the the cultured. An die Musik is different: you don’t have to be high-class; you just have to like music.
Last night I went there to see a performance of David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, which was being performed as part of Judah Adashi’s thus-far excellent Evolution Music Series. It’s a choral work that on a first listen sounds to an untutored ear like something Arvo Pärt might have written. The piece is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s short story in recitatives, interspersed with choruses inspired by Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. On the Carnegie Hall website (where, incidentally, you can stream a good recording of the piece), Lang describes why he chose the story of the match girl:
“What drew me to The Little Match Girl is that the strength of the story lies not in its plot but in the fact that all its parts—the horror and the beauty—are constantly suffused with their opposites. The girl’s bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories; her poverty is always suffused with her hopefulness. There is a kind of naive equilibrium between suffering and hope.”
I have a feeling that, had Lang not been so careful to maintain this equilibrium, this piece would have struck me as incredibly mawkish, as the story alone does. Yet the meditative interludes, especially “Have Mercy, My God” and “When it is Time for Me to Go,” gives the listener a relationship to the music than the reader couldn’t have with the text.
As for the performance, I thought all the singers were wonderful, but then again I haven’t spent much time listening to vocal performances. The mezzo-soprano gracefully handled the phrasing in the recitatives as the other musicians , and I noticed the tenor had an exquisite high range. Beyond that, I can’t judge. There was a deceptive simplicity to the staging. The musicians didn’t come to the stage as a group; they just kind of ambled up there in ones and twos, sat around for a minute or two, then stood up and started. They also played some sparse supplemental percussion. I’ve already described the effect An die Musik’s stage setup has on me; this sort of performance in this sort of space makes me feel like I’m watching highly skilled DIY indie musicians rather than Professional Classical Vocalists. (But of course these singers are in reality highly trained.)
The one sour thought I had during the oratorio had nothing to do with the music itself. In Baltimore, we’ve just settled into winter temperatures in the last week or so. Here I was, in a warm room full of music appreciators, listening to an artful evocation of a poor person suffering in the cold. Surely there is something wrong with this scene, and though I will try to ease my conscience by donating to a charitable organization this week, my conscience isn’t really the issue here.