Review: Little Match Girl Passion – Death Speaks

To get to Dinkelspiel Auditorium for an 8pm concert on a Wednesday requires leaving San Francisco at 6pm, an hour to get to Palo Alto fighting traffic all the way, and then another 45 minutes to an hour to fight the crowds to get a scarce campus parking space. Things will be different when Stanford Lively Arts moves to their new Bing Concert Hall next year, but last week this two hour pre show experience consisting of two of the least pleasant activities known to modern man might explain the surprising number of empty seats for a world premiere concert featuring the rock stars (literally) of the new music scene.

David Lang‘s The Little Match Girl Passion was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008 and spawned a co-commission from Carnegie Hall and Stanford Lively Arts, resulting in the night’s other work Death Speaks. The first piece (according to Lang’s pre-show speech, specifically made to allow those poor souls still searching for parking a chance to find their seats) came from Lang’s urge to explore the liturgical history of classical music in a context outside of religion. What would happen if we take the witnessing of Jesus’s suffering and instead witness an ordinary person’s suffering. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of a street waif freezing to death in plain sight serves as the narrative structure for this experiment.

And a most successful experiment it is. The piece is exquisitely sung by Paul Hillier’s Theater Of Voices, while accompanying themselves with an assortment of percussion instruments. The pathos and emotional heft of the story is belied by the pristine, almost chilly treatment of the text. The story is told in simple language, witnessing a painful tragedy in a series of matter of fact observations (“So the little girl went on with her little naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold.”) Lang sets this text on a simple, halting, repeating staccato line which is both impassive and somewhat childlike. There is little room for the voice to impose any sort of expression on these lines, which seems to make us, the audience, the true witnesses, respond with that much more intensity, with more outrage. How dare that soprano sing of those red and blue feet without DOING something about it! Interspersed in the narrative were moments of beatific beauty, invocations of mercy and patience and suffering. The piece is moving, devastating, and gorgeous, a monument to a religion of humanity that goes beyond any doctrine.

For the follow up piece, Lang took the bits of text throughout Schubert’s songs where Death is personified and given a voice. He then assembled an all star cast that reads as the who’s who of the new music world:  Bryce Dessner (of The National), Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond), Owen Pallett (of Owen Pallett) and Nico Muhly (of everywhere). I wish I could say the new piece was anywhere near as effective a work as the first half. Lang chose to stretch the text over longer vocal lines lines. In the audience talk back session afterwards he explained that he wanted to emphasize the text (and Worden’s voice) more, but the effect of elongating the text was to reduce it to sound and pitch as opposed to words and meaning. And without a narrative to latch onto, the piece washes over without much investment or involvement on a first listen.

Perhaps most disappointing, with the exception of Worden’s voice (and Pallett’s voice in an all too brief section of the final song), the parts could have been played by any instrumentalists familiar with modern performance practices. There was precious little Muhly-ness, Pallett-ness, or Dessner-ness on display, they all seemed subsumed in the common goal of Lang-ness, which may have been quite disappointing to concertgoers enticed by the high profile ensemble. A more cynical person than myself might catch a whiff of stunt casting, a move designed to please marketing departments everywhere. But for more charitable folks (such as myself) this was a genuine mutual admiration society whose sum ended up, in this case at least, much less than the parts.