in: Reviews

April 8, 2012

Minimalist Directness, Mystic Purity


A most uncommon acknowledgment of Good Friday recalling the crucifixion of Jesus Christ occurred at Jordan Hall. It involved the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, a slate of guest soloists, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum. Two reenactments of the passion, one allegorical, by David Lang and the other, from Biblical texts, by Arvo Pärt, adopted a similar, now familiar musical language of minimalism. Both passions were fittingly in minor modes commonly associated with all things sorrowful. Formidable sensations of timelessness, mystic purity of the Pärt were balanced by the poignant story of a hallucinatory death, from Lang.

Soprano Shari Wilson, mezzo-soprano Mary Gerbi, tenor Michael Barrett, and bass Brian Church brilliantly actuated Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion (2008) drawing out of it the increasing hallucinatory state suffered by “the little girl” who “went on with her little naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold,” to her death. Guest conductor Andrew Clark, director of Choral Activities and senior lecturer on music at Harvard University, inconspicuously savored leading the four exquisitely timbred and compatibly voiced singers, who were also called upon to add percussive touches from bell-type instruments, xylophone, and bass drum.

Through 15 songs based on the words of H. C. Andersen, H. P. Paull, Picander (the nom de plume of Christian Friedrich Henrici, the librettist for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion) and Saint Matthew, this individualistically conceived, Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the passion alternates obvious homophony with heterophony. In “Dearest Heart,” a simple conventional harmony with Lang’s twists and turns conveys text in remarkable directness and innocence. Along with repetition, the message comes clearly, no straining on the listener’s part.

Dearest heart/Dearest heart/What did you do that was so wrong?
Dearest heart/Dearest heart/Why is your sentence so hard?

For the many longer texts, Lang opts, brightly so, for a fast moving line, sol-do-re-me, (opening notes of millions of songs, one an old stay but in the major key, “How Dry I Am”) to which he adds a range of variants and crisp punctuations to create textures in heterophony. Here, despite the diction of the singers, the density and velocity of text delivery hindered words coming cleanly.

When it is time to die/Stay with me
When I am most scared/Stay with me

To express this state of mind, fast tremolo repetitions such as me-me-me-me-me and go-go-go-go-go shuttered around a centering quasi-homophonic texture. Betwixt and between, I found myself enjoying its musical playfulness while at the same time rejecting its unmitigated overtness.

Featured in Arvo Pärt’s Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Joannem (1982) were soprano Margot Rood, countertenor Martin Near, tenor Lawrence Jones, bass Paul Guttry, with Matthew Anderson as Pilatus and Sumner Thompson as Jesus, the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum and five instrumentalists from BMOP, all under the direction of Gil Rose. Along with a program providing both Latin text and English translation, two monitors exhibited English text in alternation with images across centuries of Christ’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

During an hour plus, Arvo Pärt’s Passio confined the dramatic Good Friday story to a small box of virtually inert phrases, cadences, and textures — all but a few moments in the same key of A minor, all hovering around the A. Time was in stasis, space severely moderated. It was as if watching the same scene over and over again most oftentimes noticing varying minutiae along the way. Compared to Tibetan Buddhist overtone chanting in the Himalayas, this Medieval and early Baroque shadowing induced too much consciousness of artifice, too little meditative trance. It was overly long, no equivalences to Tibetan cymbal crashes or whacks on the back preventing trance to go into sleep.

It was a rare experience hearing the story in Latin, and guest vocalists and chorus took to diction like congregating for water around an oasis in the Middle East. When Jesus sings Consummatum est, (It is finished) clarity, cleanliness, comprehensibleness are communicated. Their reenactment of Christianity’s commemoration of the events leading to Christ’s death at Calvary was an all-engulfing, awe-inspiring expression of limpidness and mystic purity. Thrillingly and intensely moving, out of this emerged a radiance: Pärt’s final Amen on a resounding D-major harmony.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

1 Comment

  1. Wow. That was a lot of descriptive words in this review. Lang’s
    work was incredibly moving.
    Part’s writing was slightly contrived when arriving at the major chord towards the end…. Not
    one of his better works.

    Comment by Anon. — April 8, 2012 at 6:52 pm

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