Maybe it was my far-off seat up in the mezzanine, or the less-than-half-full house, but I wasn't immediately impressed by the Theatre of Voices performance at Zankel Hall last night. It started out with a Gertrude Stein-esque poem read/sung by leader Paul Hillier, followed by Luciano Berio's A-Ronne, a nonsensical mix of German, Italian, French and English, mixed with burps, snores, and choking sounds. Later, Berio worked in elements of early polyphony -
Theatre of Voices' usual fare - which provided a pretty contrast to the chaos, but somehow didn't totally satify.
Things looked far more promising once I snuck down to the main level for the second half, and found myself seated in the same row as composers Steve Reich, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon. They were all there for the world premiere of David Lang's the little match girl passion, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a young girl who freezes to death while trying to sell matches on the evening of New Year's Eve. Lang, who wrote the libretto, combines Andersen's story with text from Bach's St. Matthew Passion, highlighting the martyr overtones in the original tale. The music occasionally referred to Bach, but more often resembled the vocal music of Reich or John Adams.
the little match girl passion is filled with sad and beautiful moments, as in the passage when the girl is discovered the next morning frozen to death, clutching a burnt bundle of matches:
"No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, nor into what glory she had entered, on New Year's Day."
The piece ended with a haunting dirge, repeating the words "Rest soft" while chimes tolled like church bells, fading quietly away. The crowd - which had grown significantly - offered warm and generous applause: after, I spotted Reich embracing Lang's wife, obviously moved by the work. (Hillier directed the premiere of Reich's The Cave, and Reich wrote Proverb for them. Next month, Theatre of Voices will be performing a concert of Reich's music at the upcoming Festival d'Automne in Normandy.)