David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion returned to Atlanta on Saturday night at MINT gallery, in a breathtakingly beautiful performance by the vocal group Kinnara, with percussionist Caleb Herron.
The Little Match Girl Passion is a remarkable work on many levels, a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen tale in which an abused little girl, unable to sell matches on the street, freezes to death on New Year’s Eve. When a recording was first released, it captured the classical world’s attention and won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music. For composer Lang, it seemed a huge step up, creatively and emotionally, from the hard-edged, grungy music written for the New York collective he cofounded called Bang on a Can. (In 2010, Lang spoke with ArtsATL about the burdens of winning the Pulitzer.)
For The Little Match Girl Passion, Lang also crafted the text. He found in Andersen’s story a parallel between the suffering of the child and the suffering of Jesus, of both misery and optimism, and used Bach’s “St. Matthew” Passion as something of a structural model. As the composer puts it, “The Passion format — the telling of a story while simultaneously commenting upon it — has the effect of placing us in the middle of the action, and it gives the narrative a powerful inevitability.”
Indeed. Lang’s soundworld can be tagged as post-minimalist, with repetition and overlapping phrases, close harmonies and punctuated with gentle percussion. It’s a timeless sound, modern and ancient, evoking at times gothic medieval or English Tudor church music but entirely of our own time.
Kinnara artistic director J.D. Burnett, whose day job is as director of choruses at the University of Georgia in Athens, started us out. Awkwardly, perhaps unnecessarily, he read aloud the narrative portions of the work, giving the audience the outline of the plot. If he didn’t trust his singers to enunciate the words in MINT’s cavernous space — an open, industrial warehouse with cathedral-like resonance — he was mistaken. The musicians stood in a circle around what looked like a burning metal trash can, its warm orange glow illuminating the performers from below, one of many effective mirrors into the dichotomies of the event. Soprano Margot Rood, alto Wanda Yang Temko, tenor Cory Klose and bass Steven Berlanga were alert to each other and ideally matched in delivery.
The Kinnara group sang with precision and clarity, yes, but much more: the conflicting nuances of sorrow and hope, love and violence that infuse the music were powerfully, immediately communicated. Near the end, the narrative has the girl (naively) describing the start of her own death — hallucinating a vision of a falling star, a sign that her departed grandmother had told her meant “someone is dying.”
The next section, the commentary, comes from the biblical gospel of Matthew, “From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour she cried out: Eli, Eli,” reminding us of the desperate plea: My God, why have you forsaken me? Lang’s harmonies are otherworldly and alien, haunted by the repeated word “Eli,” layer upon layer. It gave a listener shivers.
In most performances, the quartet of singers also plays the percussion instruments, adding spare yet essential punctuation and adornment for the drama but, by design, not too technically challenging — a resonant tap on the bass drum, a gentle ting of the bell. Here, Caleb Herron, artistic director of Chamber Cartel, took on most of the percussion parts and delivered them with aplomb.
Lang’s 35-minute Passion was the only music performed Saturday, a benefit for the Atlanta Children’s Shelter. I hadn’t heard Kinnara before, but the group is now on my calendar. Its next performance, in January, looks just as compelling: a program called Northern Glow, music by white-hot composers from the Baltics and Iceland.