Little Matchgirl lights up end of Soundstreams season
The Little Matchgirl Passion
By David Lang. With I Think We Are Angels by James Rolfe. Presented by Soundstreams at Streetcar Crowsnest, June 6. Repeats June 7. Soundstreams.ca
Ten years after he won the Pulitzer Prize for music, Torontonians have at last been able to hear live performances of American composer David Lang’s The Little Matchgirl Passion this season. It was worth the wait.
The Elmer Iseler Singers performed a rearrangement for full choir earlier this year. To end its 35th anniversary season, Soundstreams presented a semi-staged version of the original, with four singers and percussion, on Thursday night at Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre, with a repeat on Friday.
The Little Matchgirl Passion is a fascinating creation, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale of a young girl who is found frozen to death by a city wall, clutching a handful of burned matches with which she had been trying to keep warm.
Lang has interwoven the original narrative with emotional and spiritual responses to the little girl’s plight. The music plays on the tension between the child’s circumstances and the beautiful visions she has of her dead grandmother’s love.
Lang has also cleverly inserted references to the Passion music of J.S. Bach, underlining some thematic associations.
The singers were excellent. Soundstreams had recruited four of Canada’s best: soprano Vania Chan, mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig, tenor Colin Ainsworth and bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus. Not only did they deftly navigate Lang’s treacherous vocal shoals, they also ably accompanied themselves on various percussion instruments. John Hess conducted from a discreet corner aisle.
Susie Burpee provided some basic movement around the performance floor, which had the audience arranged around it in a horseshoe pattern. The simple costumes (by Adjelija Djuric) and atmospheric lighting (Kim Purtell) were the ideal complement to the stark text.
The result was emotionally engaging, a stark reminder that our society continues to harbour far too many versions of the little match girl in the midst of our plenty.
Soundstreams filled out the evening by commissioning Toronto composer James Rolfe to set 19 short poems by German expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schüler, who died in 1945. The song cycle, I Think We Are Angels, began the evening. Its themes included death, which fit well with Matchgirl, as well as love, yearning and being Jewish in difficult times.
Rolfe’s music was much simpler in form and structure than Lang’s. Much of it, especially the duets and ensemble songs, was beautiful. But the songs’ structural simplicity sometimes verged on threadbare, especially when their quick succession turned into a lesson in the basic forms of counterpoint.
The singers used the same percussion instruments to add a dash of accompaniment. They were joined by accordionist Michael Bridge, who showed remarkable subtlety in his production of sound.
Overall, the program was an introspective, deeply emotional experience and a wonderful showcase of what one can accomplish with the simplest of means.
Classical music writer John Terauds is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.