A young girl rests alone in a corner of a snow-covered street, afraid to go home to face her wretched father after a fruitless day. Her bare feet, blue from the bitter cold, are curled up underneath her, and in an attempt to relieve her numb hands, she lights one of her matchsticks, igniting a magical world in the small blaze — vignettes of a happy life that disappear with the flames.
It’s a classic short story by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, known for its beauty in the midst of heart-wrenching tragedy. The girl’s childhood innocence allows her imagination to run wild, removing her from reality even if only for a short time. This weekend, the Houston Chamber Choir will do the same for its audience, creating a world of dreams in “Just Imagine!” — a program that grew out of founder and artistic director Robert Simpson’s desire to perform David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Little Match Girl Passion,” a choral work partly based on the aforementioned fairy tale.
The choir, which recently received this year’s prestigious Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence from Chorus America, will begin the concert at South Main Baptist Church with two lighthearted works: Eric Whitacre’s “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine” and R. Murray Schafer’s “Medieval Bestiary.” After which, the 26 singers will delve into Lang’s evocative composition.
“It is a very unique choral piece,” Simpson said. “Lang decided that he was going to use the little match girl as a symbol of universal suffering.” In doing so, he magnified the purpose of his work beyond simply recounting Andersen’s tale, originally published in the 1800s.
The 35-minute oratorio combines the poignant plot with a cosmic concept of transformation. Suffering is renewed into a message of ultimate good as portrayed in “St. Matthew Passion,” for which German composer Johann Sebastian Bach found inspiration in said Gospel. Using the same format as Bach, Lang blended text from both works to create the libretto, writing choruses and arias representative of various emotions found in the story, and he did so in a minimalist fashion, Simpson said.
His work has somewhat of a mechanical tone, shaped by the sounds of unexpected yet simple percussion instruments, including a brake drum, tubular chimes and sleigh bells, which are played by the ensemble.
“In a very unusual way, it makes it even more compelling and heart-rending to have this almost detached quality as the singers announce these words through very angular and shortly articulated notes,” Simpson said.
To ease what would be a stark transition into this emotionally profound work, Simpson consciously arranged that it be bookended, or buffered by two shorter pieces. With text from the Book of Lamentations, “O Vos Omnes,” by the Spanish cellist and composer Pablo Casals, reflects the crucifixion of Jesus, while “Lux Aeterna,” by the English composer Edward Elgar, illuminates hope; the title itself meaning “eternal light.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: South Main Baptist Church
Details: $40 (senior and student rates available); 713-224-5566 or houstonchamberchoir.org
“The choral art is a storyteller’s art,” Simpson said. “The human voice is the most flexible, the most communicative and, in my opinion, a very powerful medium by which to express emotion just by the way the sound comes from our voice and out of our bodies and communicates itself directly to another human being without any intermediary instrument.”
Still, particularly with Lang’s “Little Match Girl Passion,” the story and the musical notes inspired by the text add another dimension to the work’s impact, incorporating the composer’s feelings into the choir’s natural way of communication. “Singing is a primal part of the human soul,” Simpson said. “To me, choral music is just the complete package.”
Lawrence Elizabeth Knox is a writer in Houston
Knox, L. E. (2018, April 12). Houston Chamber Choir kindles a world of imagination. Retrieved from www.chron.com.