The fact that Seattle Pro Musica will be presenting the little match girl passion by David Lang (in the area premiere of the choral version) is by itself enough of a sell: This mix of modern morality play and music theater just happens to be one of the most haunting and inspired choral compositions by an American composer in recent years.

Drawing on Medieval mystery plays and J.S. Bach’s Passions to retell a children’s story of searing, tragic simplicity, match girl is a completely secular work performed as part of Passio: Light in Darkness, a program of music related to Lent and the deep human emotions the season has inspired composers to explore.

For match girl, which won the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2008, Lang uses the tradition of musical settings of the Christian Passion for a retelling of the story by fairy-tale master Hans Christian Andersen. There have been many musical adaptations of Andersen’s tale of a dying child shivering in the cold—TV musicals, operas, a synthpop video by Erasure (Breathe), a concept album by The Tiger Lillies—but despite Lang's stripping away the traditional religious associations of Jesus’s suffering in the Passion, none come close to the gut-wrenching impact of his treatment. “There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus,” he says. “Rather, the suffering of the little match girl has been substituted for Jesus’, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.” In keeping with the story, Lang’s post-Minimalist score is deceptively simple. Spare harmonies and other archaisms evoke the starkness of early Medieval chant; tiny gestures generate maximal emotional response.

The program also includes a “rediscovered” rarity from the Russian choral rep: Passion Week by Rachmaninoff contemporary Alexander Gretchaninoff (1864-1956). Plus, there will be sprinklings of music by Benjamin Britten, Thomas Weelkes, and living composers like Paul Mealor and Kay Rhie. All of these selections, in different ways, highlight the special strengths of Seattle Pro Musica—and of the smaller ensembles comprising the company.

Read more about Seattle Pro Musica's concert on Thomas May's Memeteria blog. 

Passio: Light in Darkness
Mar 8 & 9 at 8, $25, St. James Cathedral

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