This weekend’s singers on the featured work by David Lang.
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Kathlene Ritch, alto
“When it is time for me to go”
It’s hard to pick a favorite moment, but I will say that upon listening to the archival recording I was reminded of how Lang’s setting of the “chorales” was so reminiscent of Bach, even though their styles are completely different! Also, it was truly moving to hear the When it is time for me to go part. I was so busy doing my chattering cold that I didn’t get the big picture until listening this time. Holy cow! It is truly gut-wrenching to hear this poor girl (and we can then imagine – ANY human who is close to death) asking, begging, for comfort and companionship… and Lang brings it out with that stop-start singing over the sustained chords of the choir.
Stefanie Moore, soprano
When I first performed The Little Match Girl Passion with Conspirare, I was struck instantly by the enormous emotional impact of this minimalist piece. When you look at the pages, you see these repeated notes and harmonic motives and structures of rhythmic motives, and a heartbreaking text. At first it can seem that the music is not a match for the text – that they are opposed to each other. But as we rehearsed it, the repeated motives and the relative safety of the minimalist style gave the text wings, and the story sneaked into my heart and broke it. The slightest change in a repeated motive makes the biggest impact. Just a small change like an accidental or one more note added in the scale can startle and shake you. The work is so well crafted and cared for, it has stayed with me from that first day of rehearsal to now, and it has become a new classic in the choral repertoire.
The movement that really takes my breath away is Mvt 3, Dearest heart. Here, in the midst of telling the story, we stop to ask “Dearest Heart/What did you do that was so wrong?” The music changes suddenly from previous movements that use complex syncopations of triplets and duples scattered and handed off from part to part. Instead we now have sudden homophonic chordal unity. Every part is singing these questions together. It’s only two pages, very brief, and marked pp, “very restrained and inward,” but the effect of this in contrast to the rest of the piece is truly staggering. It’s all I can do to not cry as we sing the last phrase, “Why is your sentence so hard?” This music is truly a lesson in the power of simplicity.
Dann Coakwell, tenor
One of the most striking elements of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion is how he references Bach without referencing him. As an avid performer of Bach myself, many of the great composer’s works reside on my “desert island playlist,” especially the St. Matthew Passion. I therefore can’t help but to often find myself seeking and encountering parallels to Bach’s masterpieces in everyday life. Had Lang not added the word “passion” to the title of his setting of the classic story of the little match girl, I would think… well, there I go again, finding Bach wherever I want. Lang brilliantly sculpts a narrative without a singular Evangelist, while weaving arias, turba choruses, and chorales in and out, with just four voices, in such a way that the listener might miss the connection if she blinks. The witness to the work never hears Bach explicitly, but the undercurrent of his influence flows throughout the piece’s form.
A moment that particularly hits me is Dearest heart. The first chorale of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion expresses in German, “Dearest of my heart, Jesus, what have you broken, that such a sharp judgment/sentence has been spoken/assigned?” Not only does Lang’s carefully crafted English text allude directly to Bach’s, but his sudden homophony also parallels as it halts the action of the multi-textured musical drama that ensued in the previous two movements. In his program note for the piece, Lang says that, in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “horror and beauty—are constantly suffused with their opposites.” Humanity struggles with this theme every day, whether through unrest abroad such as the Syrian refugee crisis, or within our own borders, as we struggle as a nation to wrap our minds around how so many faultless, beautiful lives are lost to senseless acts of violence. As in Bach, Lang’s chorale urges the audience to pause and reflect on the juxtaposition of innocence and punishment that pervades every generation.
Music excerpts from the archival live recording of Conspirare performing the choral version of The Little Match Girl Passion at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church, Austin, TX, May 2010.