(Photo: Steven Pisano)
Death of Classical‘s 2023-24 season concluded The Crypt Sessions with David Lang‘s very timely “The Little Match Girl Passion” featuring the Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble at NYC’s Church of the Intercession on December 12, 2023. “The Little Match Girl Passion,” based on The Little Match Girl by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, originally debuted in 2007 at Zankel Hall in NY’s Carnegie Hall and was commissioned by Carnegie Hall Corporation and The Perth Theater and Concert Hall for Paul Hillier and Theatre of Voices. In 2008, David Lang was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for this work.
“The text is by me, after texts by Han Christian Andersen, H. P. Paulli (the first translator of the story into English, in 1872), Picander (the nom de plume of Christian Friedrich Henrici, the librettist of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion), and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew,” said Lang. “The word ‘passion’ comes from the Latin word for suffering. There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus—rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’s, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.”
The new music vocal group, Ekmeles, performed Lang’s work with fervor and immediacy. They are dedicated to performing “new and rarely-heard works, and gems of the historical avant-garde.” They were also just awarded the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation’s 2023 Ensemble Prize, the first American group to receive the honor. The group for “The Little Match Girl Passion” performance consisted of conductor/baritone Jeffrey Gavett, soprano Charlotte Mundy, alto Amber Evans, tenor Tomás Cruz, and bass Steven Hrycelak.
The evening’s performance resonated deeply inside the Church of the Intercession‘s Gothic Revival style basement, reminding listeners about the powerful story of how one voice is capable of igniting hearts across the world.
The opening song, “Come, Daughter,” begins with a beckoning call for listeners to “come,” and feel the dire need of a soul begging for warmth and care from anyone who will listen. Soprano Charlotte Mundy and alto Amber Evans initiated this call and response with a bright tone. Both voices stretched into the hall’s Gothic arches, echoing along to the pulse of Steven Hrycelak’s voice and bass drum. The music score notes for singers to be “gentle, but a bit heavy, like a girl trudging through the snow.” Lang creates an atmosphere of a person trying to save their own life, moving forward as best they can in order to survive.
“Help me daughter, help me cry,” intensifies and mounts both Mundy and Evans’ voices into a pleading notion of dissonance. This is where some may say Lang’s voice as a composer first comes forward in this piece. He is a master of balancing dissonances that are just enough to disturb and awaken at the same time. The voices became bell-like as they alternated the text, “look, daughter, where, daughter, what, daughter, who daughter…” In the midst of sustaining chaos, harmony unfolded in the light.
What is it that David Lang wanted most for listeners to experience in this? Despite the very clear voice of desperation, there was something more that lingered in the back of the mind.
It was Terribly Cold
Amber Evans and Charlotte Mundy’s voices began song two like a whisper in the night. Evans’ triplets were crisp and articulate, leading Mundy’s single notes at the beginning of each phrase in a clear direction. In some instances, works that leave as much space as this one does between notes have the tendency to fall flat.
However, Evans and Mundy were on the tips of their toes in anticipation and it always helps to have a beautiful glockenspiel playing an octave above in transcendent resonance. For some, this song might be their favorite of the whole night. The pure simplicity and space that it creates between the listener’s ears is truly magical, like a breath of fresh air among newly fallen snow.
Song three has a rich vocal structure that allows all four voices to blend and melt into one. This was definitely a unified vocal effort to remain anonymous when there are only four voices in a group, but done exceedingly well by Ekmeles. Although this song is only 23 measures, the impact it gives is enough. Only the most practiced “new works focused” ensembles can make this sound translucent and tragic at the same time.
In an Old Apron
This song contains some of Lang’s finest story-telling text within the whole work. The soprano and tenor voices elongate lyrical texts, while the alto and bass voices remain in triplets. “In an Old Apron” creates a mirrored effect to the listener’s ear that feels noticeably reflective and deeply introspective. If one were to look at the score while listening, it only adds to the delight of Lang’s genius. It is reminiscent of a mother pulling along a young child who moves at a slower pace, dreading the inevitable reality that awaits.
Penance and Remorse
The text of this song is what stands out the most. All four voices sang with sorrowful resoluteness that felt like an emotional vacuum in the church’s basement. Lang’s choice to highlight penance and remorse in this way felt like a lifting of the mysterious veil that often causes delusion within certain beliefs. Instead of helping the child and bettering their immediate environment by providing shelter from the cold, here the listener is given a chance to repent and feel the burden of their own sins. For some, this moment may seem like Lang is holding a mirror up to the audience. And again, the question arises, what is it that David Lang wants most for listeners to experience in this?
Lights Were Shining
There is a stark sense of urgency building in song six as Ekmeles sings about the little match girl watching holiday festivities begin around her, knowing she cannot go home to her abusive father. Steven Hrycelak sang while playing the glockenspiel with careful attention and skill. It was his driving forward that led the group, along with conductor Jeffrey Gavett. Amber Evans’ voice sounded particularly powerful in this piece, too.
“Barely audible, expectant and painful” is written in the score for this piece. Steven Hrycelak’s voice utters “patience” as he scrapes his brake drum for an extended fermata “in a long, discontinuous circular motion.” Hrycelak uses this moment in the song cycle to allow everyone to breathe, and imagine the whisper of the little match girl’s soul encircling the hall. “Patience.”
Song eight is purposefully disjointed and unnerving, pushing listeners into a rabbit hole of fragmented thoughts, hopes and desires only to be realized too late. Lang creates this description of helplessness amassed by all four voices singing multiple rhythmic ideas at once. Ekmeles sounds alarming and dismantled as they vocally grasp at making sense of the storyline at this point. It is a wonderful display of Lang coordinating chaos only to be resolved in the next song.
“Then the match went out, and there remained nothing but the thick, damp, cold wall before her,” the ensemble sang.
Have Mercy, My God
This is Lang’s version of a prayer that is both universal in text and musical ideas. The soprano and alto voices remain chant-like all throughout, singing “have mercy, my god.” Again, one could not tell the difference between Mundy and Evans’ voices. They sang perfectly in their call and response all throughout. The tenor and bass voices are the rhythmic drivers, motioning the chant along. Cruz and Hrycelak were gentle and attentive throughout this song, creating a sound atmosphere of dreamy nothingness to subdue one’s mind during a time of severe heartbreak for the little match girl nearing death.
A vast emptiness surrounded the audience in the hall at the close of this song. It was a very eery moment for all.
From the Sixth Hour
Charlotte Mundy sang a chilling pattern of notes that lifted into the hall, middle C to high C, middle C to high D, middle C to high E flat. It felt like the notes were the matches themselves, being struck only to be blown-out by the cold night air. Every voice began to sing this pattern and made what can only be described as a sorrowful meditation for the little match girl to be suspended in. Just before the song ended, Mundy sang Lang’s alarming vocal pattern, middle G to high G, middle F to high G, middle E flat to high G, and middle D to high F.
One might have felt transported in this moment by the Ekmeles ensemble. It seemed like there was no air in the hall, not enough to deserve a breath that this little girl would never get to feel again for herself. This was an extremely heart-wrenching moment.
When It is Time for Me to Go
Lang’s combination of tuplets for the alto voice to sing is astounding in this piece. Amber Evans’ voice was masterfully exact as she alternated quintuplets, quadruplets, and triplets with text. There was a lulling sense of unease that built and flourished forth from the ensemble as they sang. A murmuring, drowning tone of despair. “Stay with me” were their final words, reverberating out into the night.