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Emmanuel Scores Big


David Lang, composer (Peter Serling photo)

“Late Night at Emmanuel” allows the company’s musicians to design programs of about an hour’s length, performed twice in one evening. Despite its spareness and brevity, David Lang’s the little match girl passion, the only work offered on Friday at Emmanuel Church, satisfied me more than any concert I’ve attended in a long time.

The Pulitzer committee got it right when they awarded the prize in music in 2008 to the passion. Lang is perhaps the most visible of the founding triumvirate of Bang on a Can (along with Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe). Over the last 30 years, BOAC has succeeded in bringing the ethos and aesthetics of the post-minimalist downtown New York City scene to the center of contemporary composition. This work represents a beautifully balanced synthesis of many of Lang’s techniques. The material combines the low and the high: the match girl in question is the one in the story by Hans Christian Andersen; desperately poor, she freezes to death on New Year’s Eve. The “passion” is Bach’s: the text of the St. Matthew Passion is specifically invoked, but it is the form of the work where the connection lies, in the way that it alternates recitative that tells a story with more expansive sections that reflect on what has happened.

The repetitive musical construction always contains elements of asymmetry or unpredictability. Lang sets the recitative texts, which tell the story more or less straight, to patterns with even rhythm. The melodies tend to rise and suddenly fall, and he makes no attempt to match the cadence or stress of the words to the musical patterns. In addition, the melodies are often in uneven groups of notes that recur against a steady underlying beat: they circle around and around and never quite land. The effect is just slightly awkward; the listener must lean in and attend to the words, while at the same time the music tells its own, somewhat independent story. The emotional weight of the music is carried by the harmony, which is consonant in the main but filled with dissonant suspensions. The text skirts sentimentality, while the setting enforces distance: it is sympathetic, but not indulgent. At any given moment the listener can probably predict what will happen next, but the imperfections in the symmetries means that there is a unremitting sense of tension. As the little girl sits in the cold, she strikes her matches and has increasingly intense visions: of a stove, a rich meal, Christmas day, her beloved grandmother. The recitatives depict her slide towards death in increasingly complex layers of sound: in the absence of a printed text, one must concentrate ever harder to pick the story out of the swimming, shimmering texture. This little girl’s passion lacks the grandeur of the passion of the savior of the world; but it has at its heart the same hard nut of tragedy and pathos. And while there is no suggestion that her death will save humanity from death, in the vivid warmth of her hallucinations there is some small suggestion of redemption.

The piece is written for four voices with subtle, judicious percussion. The regular tolling of the glockenspiel underlies much of the recitative, giving a chilly cast to the sound. On Friday,  Margot Rood (soprano), Emily Marvosh (contralto), Matthew Anderson (tenor) and Jesse Blumberg (baritone), all directed by Emmanuel’s artistic director, Ryan Turner, performed impeccably, precisely and with a polished beauty. In the intimate confines of the Emmanuel Church Parish Hall, the audience surrounding the players. The Hall has a slightly dry acoustic, which only highlighted the preternatural connection among the performers, whose unified attack and resonant tone needed no reverberation to protect them.

However, there was more than music going on. Marvosh, who curated this performance, had invited the Boston Dance Theater to add choreography. The movement score by Jessie Jeanne Stinnet, calling four dancers (Olivia Coombs, Whitney Cover, Mitzi Eppley and Cacia LaCount), dewveloped out of a vocabulary of lithe flowing gestures and sudden angular “breaks,” with occasional movements that felt almost feral: crawling along the floor, awkward squatting positions. There were also four white, glowing, translucent orbs — snowballs, or full moons? — that were brought into the space and which rested among the musicians for much of the work. The dance was engrossing, but also distracting: the music, simple as it is, repays close attention, and I found myself losing track of the text as I attended to the movements of the dancer in front of me. The choreography underlined the death of the match girl with violent shiverings, making painfully obvious what is heartbreakingly implied by the music. In the small space, performed with this fragile score, the physicality of the dance was intrusive: the sounds of feet hitting the floor, even the dancers’ breathing, made sounds that were at odds with Lang’s sound world.

More troubling to me, however, was the decision to bookend the work with a Bach chorale. This was not so concerning at the start of the evening, as you could reasonably argue that it helps settle the audience into the performance, Bach providing a “soft landing” into Lang’s glinting, reductionist sound world. But Lang has a deft dramatic sense, and the blunt ending of the little match girl passion implies its own, subtle devastation. Appending Bach afterwards both diminishes those final moments, and makes Bach sound a bit sloppily romantic in contrast.

Whatever reservations one might have about the additions, you have to feel gratitude for the opportunity to encounter the little match girl passion in an intimate setting, with such accomplished performers. The audience sat rapt throughout; as movements came to an end you could hear the faint ringing of the glockenspiel in the silence, hovering on the edge of audibility. There was almost no coughing or rustling, even considering the beverages and hors d’oeuvres that form part of the “Late Night” experience. Despite the relatively simple production values, this passion moved me somewhere deep.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.

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