It's hard to believe that it's been 4 1/2 years since the premiere of David Lang's the little match girl passion at Zankel Hall. I was there, and remember the piece standing out from the rest of the program, but I don't think anyone in the hall that night would have predicted that it would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, immediately elevating Lang's status as a composer - and, by proxy, that of the entire downtown music scene.
History seemed to repeat itself last Friday, when Zankel was again packed with a mixed crowd of uptown and downtown types to see the same musicians - Paul Hillier's Theater of Voices - perform the same work. The performance was part of Carnegie's "Making Music" series, which highlights the work of a particular composer through performances and conversation, led by Carnegie's director of artistic planning, Jeremy Geffen (who also led the conversation I heard in David's SoHo loft in 2009.) Here, Geffen was a somewhat awkward host, saved from disaster only by Lang's easy charm and wit. Some examples:
"People think a composer's job is to make cool sounds. No. We actually manage energy."
"(Winning the Pulitzer) was a complete surprise to me. But, it's been a wonderful thing. Now, I can say any ridiculous thing I want."
"No, I'm not giving it back."
the little match girl passion is written for four voices, one each from the traditional S-A-T-B setup. Each singer also is tasked with playing percussion: mostly delicate chimes and a deep bass drum that rattled through my chest like a far off thundercloud. The music is simple yet devastating, recounting Hans Christian Andersen's sad tale of the girl who runs away from her violent father, only to die frozen on the streets clutching a book of matches she held to stay warm. The entire hall was riveted throughout, just like they were at the premiere.
Folllowing the intermission was the N.Y. premiere of David's death speaks, co-commissioned by Carnegie and Stanford University for their Stanford Lively Arts program. On the surface, the concept sounded incredibly cool: take the same 4-player setup as little match girl passion, but this time using texts from Schubert's songs about death, employing four classically-trained musicians whose careers have long-since veered into the indie-pop world: Bryce Dessner, Owen Pallett, Shara Worden, and Nico Muhly.
"I wanted to bring these musicians back to classical music, from which they came. They left because the landscape wasn't sufficient for what they wanted to express."
Unfortunately, these four talented musicians - all brilliant composers in their own right - seemed stifled attempting to adhere to David's intricate music. Owen, in particular, seemed wasted on the venture, consigned to backup vocals and an occasional violin line. And, try as I might, I just can't warm up to Shara's nonstop vibrato. Still, the potential of the work was palpable, and with a bit more time in the incubator, death speaks might just take its rightful place alongside that already-acknowledged masterpiece.