Facility Theatre’s The Little Match Girl Passion Credit: Leslie Schwartz Photography

Composer David Lang, who served on the committee that awarded Kendrick Lamar’s album Damn a Pulitzer Prize earlier this week, won his own Pulitzer in 2008 for the vocal composition The Little Match Girl Passion. Commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Corporation and the Perth Theater and Concert Hall, it was premiered in October 2007 by Theatre of Voices, conducted by Paul Hillier. A sublime recording of the work by the same ensemble was released in 2009 by Harmonia Mundi. The piece was written for four vocalists and percussion, but a choral version by the Los Angeles Master Chorale came out in 2016 on Cantaloupe Records.

Lang’s piece adapts the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Little Match Girl,” about a child from an impoverished family forced by an abusive father to sell matches in the brutal cold on New Year’s Eve. Shoeless and underdressed for the weather, she can’t earn even a penny and begins to despair. She lights matches for warmth, but she’s already freezing to death, so that she sees each little burst of heat and light as a vision—these apparitions comfort her as she slips into the afterlife, accompanied to heaven by her grandmother. Her body is discovered the following morning, burned matches in her hands and a faint smile on her face.

Lang, a minimalist stepped in contemporary modes, drew inspiration from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in writing his piece. The original production evokes Baroque vocal tradition with its ethereal polyphony and four-voice block harmony, while the hypnotic simplicity of its melodic shapes sounds thoroughly contemporary.

The Little Match Girl Passion has already been adapted to theatrical settings, including a staging for puppets. Last weekend, in the basement of the Holy Trinity Church School (1135 N. Cleaver), I caught a new theatrical production for humans, mounted by young Chicago company Facility Theatre and directed by Dado. The cast includes eight professional singers, some of whom have previously performed the work under the direction of Bienen School of Music professor Donald Nally at Northwestern (he also leads the superb choir the Crossing, which sang The Little Match Girl Passion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2012).

The deftly choreographed production also involves ten silent performers: six actors, a butcher, and three people credited as “grandmothers.” The immersive staging places the spectators in clusters toward the four corners of the main performance area, leaving room for fleeting bursts of activity to occur behind them. Justin Hayford wrote a review for this week’s paper, so I’ll direct you there for more—I’m no theater critic, but I agree that the proliferation of stage business and visuals is at times overwhelming. The production feels as much like an installation as it does a play or a musical, especially because the actions of the actors don’t directly illustrate the narrative suggested by the singers (who also act).

In this shot, it’s a little easier to tell that the play is staged in the basement of a church school.Credit: Leslie Schwartz Photography

It may be difficult to follow what’s going on, but the music is rapturous. Dado has help from Alex Monroe, a member of theatrical percussion ensemble Beyond This Point. Monroe largely discards the conventional percussion instruments called for in Lang’s score, developing jerry-rigged instrumentation that complements the homemade qualities of the set and the themes of the story. Monroe performs off to the side, behind a section of chain-link fence. Sometimes he produces eerie, sustained ringing by rubbing the rims of wine glasses; at other times he creates pitched rhythms with a motley collection of metal objects spread out on a table, providing deft counterpoint to the pulsing voices. At one point the singers strike tuned metal pipes hung from the ceiling, their fixed patterns producing a simple, resonant melody. During the climax of the play, Monroe moves to the center of the performance space and uses a sledgehammer to pound on a massive tractor tire laid on its side,  generating a surprisingly deep throbbing sound. 

I found the show captivating—it propelled my imagination in several directions, and prodded me to reflect on the growing economic inequality in this country. The thematic material, as effective as it is, might seem a little on the nose—a dying little girl watching scenes of celebratory bounty play out behind windows around town could hardly speak more clearly to the divide between poverty and wealth, and the way people ignore her while she struggles to sell her matches seems designed to indict those of us who don’t want to be bothered with the suffering of others. Even beyond its overt messages, the production filled my head with sounds and visions that I’m still processing.

Performances of The Little Match Girl Passion continue this weekend (April 20 through 22) and next weekend (April 27 through 29). Friday and Saturday shows are at 8 PM, Sunday shows at 4 PM.

Below you can check out the 2009 recording in its entirety.

Today’s playlist:

Aisha Orazbayeva, Outside (Nonclassical)
Tomasz Stanko, TWET (Polskie Nagrania)
Giuliano d’Angiolini, Cantilena (Another Timbre)
Moses Sumney, Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)
Eero Koivistoinen Quartet, Labyrinth (Love)