Members of Pro Coro
Charles H. Griffen This Advent moon shines cold and clear
David Lang The Little Match Girl Passion
J.S. Bach ‘Ich will Dich mit Fleiß bewahren’ from Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, No.33
Jolaine Kerley (soprano, sleighbells, brake drum)
Adrienne Sitko (alto, crotales)
Caleb Nelson (tenor, glockenspiel)
Michael Kurschat (bass, bass drum, tubular bells)
Conducted by Michael Zaugg
Holy Trinity Anglican Church
December 10, 2017
It has become a tradition for Pro Coro to present a performance of the American composer David Lang’s haunting The Little Match Girl Passion during Advent. This year was the fifth in this tradition, with a change of venue to the intimate setting of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, which, lit by candles and with the side aisles in darkness, had exactly that quality of a ritual space that suits the work.
For Lang’s 2007 work, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, is ritualistic. It takes Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story The Little Match Girl not as a moral story or a quasi-fairy tale, but as – to use Lang’s own word – a ‘parable’, “drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus.” Lang then created a structure which deliberately recalls the tradition of the musical passion, and specifically Bach’s St. Matthew Passion – and only the structure, as there is no reference to Bach’s music. Thus there are sections that essentially comment on the actual singing of the Andersen text, as in this passage:
From the sixth hour
From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land
until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour she cried
That 35-minute structure is a mirror structure, with material recognizably returning in the second half, mirroring the first. The four singers also discretely and at intervals play percussive instruments (drums, glockenspiel, tubular bells) that are connected with different elements in the story, notably the glockenspiel, associated directly with the match girl and her story. The music itself is primarily slow, quite strongly rhythmic, and very atmospheric – again, ritualistic in nature. The four voices regularly have what might be described as rolling overlapping (not quite counterpoint, nor quite round, closer to the medieval technique of hocket), and at other times there are shades of some of the vocal techniques of the avant-garde period, such as as a voice used percussively against the main line. Harmonies are generally slow-moving, occasionally setting up dissonances before moving into more concerted combinations or chords of great beauty. When combined with such a powerful and distressing story about a child, it is no wonder that the piece has regularly been performed all over the world.
The move to Holy Trinity, although atmospherically so effective, was, I suspect, the prime cause for what was a perfectly acceptable performance (the audience were clearly moved) being less successful than it perhaps might have been. A number of things seemed to have conspired together, and the first was probably the acoustics of the church blurring the sound. The second, and slightly inexplicably for Pro Coro, was the imbalance between the voices. The two women’s voices predominated, the two men’s voices regularly got lost, and there seemed to be a reluctance to bring one voice forward out of the quartet when needed (for example, the tenor’s “So the little girl…” in the second movement). Equally surprising was the lack of clear articulation – it was difficult (at times impossible) to hear the words, and while some of this might be down to the acoustics of the church, not all of it was. Last was the use of an old glockenspiel (on loan) that had decidedly seen better days – not only were many of the notes tinny, but quite a few of them were not as pure as they should be. That uncomfortable sense of pitch insecurity was compounded by the quite heavy contralto vibrato and difficulty at times in the clarity of the men’s pitches.
The result was a performance that lacked both musical and verbal clarity and the beauty that comes from pitches and notes perfectly overlapping each other. I don’t want to exaggerate those failings, and I did wonder whether my ears, rather than Pro Coro, were simply having an off-night. So when I got home, with the performance I had just heard still singing around my head, I played the recording conducted by Paul Hillier, who had conducted the premiere in Carnegie Hall in 2007 (Harmonia Mundi HMU807496DI). Immediately it was as everything that had been slightly out of focus – the pitches, the balance, the clarity of the words – had suddenly snapped into sharp relief.
If you think that is an unfair comparison, in one sense it is, since Hillier’s was a studio recording with ideal conditions. But Pro Coro are the one classical music group in Edmonton about whom one can genuinely use that rather hackneyed phrase ‘world-class’, and can stand in comparison to their peers around the globe. The idea of performing The Little Match Girl Passion every year is a welcome one, and Holy Trinity Anglican Church such a worthy setting, that I do hope Pro Coro continues the tradition there, albeit perhaps with some adjustment for the acoustics of the building.
The performance of the Lang was book-ended by two short pieces, neatly filling out the evening. The first was a pleasant but unremarkable This Advent moon shines cold and clear by the St Paul/Minneapolis area choral composer (and former professor of mathematics at the University of Virginia) Charles Giffen – very much in the style of a Christmas song. The concert closed, appropriately, with a short chorale from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, the words echoing the spirit of the Little Match Girl:
…to you I shall depart,
with you I shall one day soar aloft
full of joy, beyond time
there in the other life.