Concert Review: Emmanuel Music’s Late Night Show

David Lang’s score is hypnotic, and Emmanuel Music’s quartet of singers gave wonderful renditions.

A scene from Emmanuel Music’s production of “the little match girl passion.” Photo: Robert Torres.

By Susan Miron

This year Ryan Turner, Artistic Director of Emmanuel Music, came up with a canny brainstorm: to choose a curator from among the members of the group and ask them to propose an interdisciplinary performance. It needed to be under an hour, and to be staged in the church’s Parish Hall. The first two events/concerts  n this program were highly successful. Finger foods and wine were available, and a good time was had by all.

The first Late Night at Emmanuel was in September. Entitled Howl, featured baritone David Kravitz, mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgove, and poet Lloyd Schwartz. The second, curated by the enchanting contralto Emily Marvosh, also took place on a Friday night (April 27), with shows at 8 (sold out) and 10 p.m., including a talk-back with the performers at 9.

David Lang’s the little match girl passion (the all-lower-case format is the composer’s) is based on a powerful story by Hans Christian Andersen. The piece won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Music, and Emmanuel Music gave it a ravishing performance that featured an all-star vocal quartet, each of whom played a battery of percussion instruments — soprano Margot Rood (brake drum and sleigh bell), contralto Emily Marvosh (crotales), tenor Matthew Anderson (glockenspiel), and baritone Jesse Blumberg (bass drum and tubular bells). Turner conducted. Oddly, this is the first Boston performance in a decade of this secular passion. There are several versions of the piece, including one for larger choir, available on YouTube.

Marvosh asked Jessie Stinnett of Boston Dance Theater to create choreography for the Emmanuel Music performance. “I have been astonished and humbled to see the way she and her (4) dancers have lived closely with the words and music for many months,” Marvosh writes in her program notes, “and have pulled out of them a physical language that, for me, heightens the stark contrast between stories grand and small, while at the same time making them both essentially human … Lang’s passion and its debt to St, Matthew Passion makes it a natural choice for Emmanuel Music musicians and audiences.”

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, performed last year by Emmanuel Music, was among the inspirations for Lang’s passion. The composer details the connection, “Andersen’s tale is a kind of parable, drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus.” The girl “is scorned by the crowd, dies, and is transfigured… My piece is called the little match girl passion and it sets Andersen’s story “The Little Match Girl” in the format of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, interspersing Andersen’s narrative with my versions of the crowd and character responses from Bach’s Passion. The text is by me, after texts by Hans 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. 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.”

A scene from Emmanuel Music’s production of “the little match girl passion.” Photo: Robert Torres.

Lang’s score is hypnotic, and Emmanuel Music’s quartet of singers gave wonderful renditions. Soprano Rood surmounted its many challenging parts with aplomb and her customary elegance. The 4 vocalists sang together with finesse, at times supplying an almost startling beauty.

The 4 talented dancers — Olivia Coombs, Whitney Cover, Mitzi Eppley, and Cacia LaCount — entered wearing white (the singers wore black) and carrying lit orbs, moving expressively around the circle of singers. The intent was for the dancers to choose words that spoke to them, and then to improvise their own stories into this tale of the match girl and her suffering. For me, the choreography did not do much to enhance the storytelling; in fact, it distracted from concentrating on the singers’ words.

Still, the dancers contributed to an unusually moving ending, one that was particularly apt for a ‘late night’ performance. The dancers gradually collapsed onto the floor, then left the stage. One by one, Turner switched off the lights on the singers’ music stands. Now in the dark, they sang Bach.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.

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