Yet on Friday evening, Toronto’s Music Gallery successfully put together a (mostly) contemporary program that also had a warm, fuzzy, Christmassy feel to it.
The performers were soprano Katherine Hill, mezzo Patricia O’Callaghan, tenor Lucas Marchand and bass Dallas Bergen. Singing without a conductor, and also playing percussion instruments (bass drum, glockenspiel, chimes, and a few others), they brought skill and commitment to their task. Perhaps a little more rehearsal would have helped – to overcome the nose-buried-in-the-score feel to the reading – but generally, things went well.
Pulitzer Prizes are fine things, I suppose – but it was the endorsement of music-critic Tim Page that enticed me to attend. Page wrote, “I don't think I've ever been so moved by a new, and largely unheralded, composition as I was by David Lang's Little Match Girl Passion, which is unlike any music I know.”
Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tragic tale of a poor girl who freezes to death even as she experiences a kind of religious ecstasy, it is indeed a very moving piece. Perhaps most impressive is Lang’s ability to create such a powerful musical tableau with such modest resources. Largely built of short, repeated diatonic phrases, with touches of percussion providing a pleasant tonal underpinning, Little Match Girl is disarmingly simple.
But I’m not sure I’d go as far as Page, in declaring the piece “unlike any music I know.” To my ears, Little Match Girl was suggestive of Gregorian chant, of Palestrina, of Bach, and especially of Arvo Pärt. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Before Little Match Girl, the another group of vocal performers, Grex, performed a collection of short works. Grex is an octet (although only seven members were present on this occasion) of singers unburdened by too much in the way of formal vocal training. No matter – they boldly forged ahead with a well-chosen repertoire, suitable for “non-professional” singers.
Grex opened the program with a piece for hand-chimes by Toronto composer Christopher Willes, in the spirit of change-ringing. Meredith Monk was represented by two works: Interpretation of Braid II and Interpretation of Hocke (the group is a big fan of hers). Other works included All is Loneliness by Moondog (a.k.a. Louis Thomas Hardin), May 1 by Tova Kardonne, and Ernst Toch’s spoken Geographical Fugue. Folk-songs from the Republic of Georgia and from the American shape-note tradition revealed surprising similarities in style, when placed side by side.
© Colin Eatock 2013