MEMETERIA

THOMAS MAY on the arts

Passio: Light in Darkness

Karen Thomas

Karen Thomas

I’ve always admired the quality and imagination of Karen Thomas’s programming for Seattle Pro Musica, but their upcoming program, titled Passio: Light in Darkness, has me champing at the bit, to put it frankly.

“The concept for Passio is music related to Lent and the deep human emotions this season has inspired composers to explore,” says Thomas, who not only directs Pro Musica but is herself a composer. And that can also take the form of completely secular works like the little match girl passion by David Lang, which draws on models from Medieval mystery plays and J.S. Bach’s Passions to retell a children’s story of searing, tragic simplicity.

The fact that Pro Musica will be presenting match girl (in the area premiere of the choral version) is by itself enough of a sell: this just happens to be one of the most haunting and inspired choral compositions by an American composer in recent years. But the program also includes a “re-discovered” rarity from the Russian choral rep: Passion Week by Rachmaninoff contemporary Alexander Gretchaninoff (1864-1956). Plus, there will be sprinklings of music by Benjamin Britten, Thomas Weelkes, and living composers like Paul Mealor and Kay Rhie. All of these selections, in different ways, highlight the special strengths of Seattle Pro Musica — and of the smaller ensembles comprising the company.

Seattle Pro Musica

Seattle Pro Musica

Lang, an LA native now based in New York (and known as one of the co-founders of the innovative Bang on a Can new-music outfit), has fast forwarded the American maverick lineage into the 21st century. Lang is also an adventurous collaborator who has worked with the likes of photographer William Wegman and the film director Jonathan Parker (scoring the 2009 indie comedy (Untitled). But for the little match girl passion, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2008, Lang engages in a remarkably original “collaboration” with sources you don’t normally associate with each other. He uses the tradition of musical settings of the Christian Passion narrative as a model for his retelling of an incredibly poignant children’s story by fairy-tale master Hans Christian Andersen.

The root of the word “passion” is from the Latin term for suffering. Lang strips away the traditional religious associations of the Passion story but uses the narrative techniques that were pioneered and perfected by Bach — “commentary” passages interpolated into the ongoing story — to recount the suffering and death of the little girl in Andersen’s story who tries to sell matches on a street corner on a brutally cold New Year’s Eve. Or, another way to put it, as Lang himself does: “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’, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.”

There have been many musical adaptations of Andersen’s tale — TV musicals, operas, a synthpop video by Erasure, a concept album by The Tiger Lillies. But nothing I know comes close to the gut-wrenching impact of Lang’s treatment. His post-Minimalist score is deceptively simple, in keeping with the story. Spare harmonies and other archaisms evoke the starkness of early Medieval chant (think Perotin — that far back); tiny gestures generate maximal emotional response.

“There’s an extremely intimate quality to it,” Thomas explains. “Lang’s music has an immediacy and at the same time a kind of emotional reserve about it, because of the way he writes for the voices to evoke the Evangelist in a Bach Passion or a Greek chorus. So there’s a certain coldness and detachment as well that makes the tragic story that much more poignant as a result.”

Over the past two weeks, in concerts featuring the same vocal soloists, I’ve taken advantage of the rare opportunity to experience and compare the two great Passions by J.S. Bach that survive. (Pro Musica also performed the St. John Passion two seasons ago.) So it should be especially fascinating to encounter Lang’s piece, which I’ve long treasured since on recordings, with this context fresh in mind. Yet on its own terms, match girl is an immediately gripping and effective work, a mix of modern morality play and music theater — but with none of the preachiness that can sometimes creep into, say, a performance of Brecht.

Alexander Gretchaninoff in 1910

Alexander Gretchaninoff in 1910

As for Gretchaninoff’s Passion Week, Karen Thomas points out that it will beautifully complement the pared-down sound of Lang’s little match girl passion by taking us to another extreme of lushness and blooming choral texture. Premiered in Russia in 1912, Passion Week sets texts from the Russian Orthodox liturgy that are used as prayers during the week that culminates in Easter. Gretchaninoff, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, was part of the Renaissance of Russian choral music in the early 20th century that’s also represented by Rachmaninoff’s beloved Vespers (1915).

“In Gretchaninoff’s setting you can hear the influence of early Russian music and chant even more clearly,” says Thomas. “And he writes even more extensively for the low range of the basses than Rachmaninoff. This will sound especially compelling when heard in the acoustic space of St. James.”

Thomas adds that the prayers Gretchaninoff sets combine mystical and liturgical texts. They tend to be “more of a personal reflection” on the events of Good Friday, for example, than the librettos Bach set for his Passions. But this music fell into oblivion in the wake of the Soviet Union’s official crackdown on the Russian choral movement that had begun to take flight. Gretchaninoff himself stayed for a time but finally emigrated to the U.S. in 1939. His Passion Week wasn’t revived until the 1990s. Thomas believes these may be the first Seattle area performances.

An additional note: Yet another composer involved in the Russian choral movement — and another Rimsky student — will be in the spotlight next month when Cappella Romana presents the recently rediscovered Passion Week of Maximilian Steinberg, “the last major sacred work composed in Russia before Stalin’s 1932 crackdown (April 11 and 12).

And: Seattle Symphony is presenting a special symposium on March 22-23 on the theme Creative Diaspora: Émigré Composers from the Former USSR. Speakers will include no less than Russian music authority Richard Taruskin. The symposium is scheduled in conjunction with the U.S. premiere of Alexander Raskatov’s Night Butterflies Piano Concerto.

Seattle Pro Musica’s Passio – Light in Darkness concerts take place on Saturday and Sunday, March 8 and 9, both evenings at 8 pm at St. James Cathedral. Tickets here.

Thomas May

Filed under: choral music, new music, preview

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