From the frightening “Dies Irae” chant to Mozart’s solemn “Requiem” to Elton John’s wistful “Candle in the Wind,” the music of western culture has played a key role interpreting death and loss. Art of Élan took up this challenging topic on Tuesday (Feb. 25) in a concert of new compositions at the San Diego Museum of Art’s Hibben Gallery.
With UC San Diego’s nonpareil condcutor Steven Schick on the podium and series Artistic Director Kate Hatmaker as concertmaster of the 15 piece string ensemble, the concert opened with Anna Clyne’s “Within Her Arms” from 2009, a restrained, eloquent elegy to the composer’s late mother. Well crafted with gracefully sculpted and deftly layered divided string parts, “Within Her Arms” unfolded like a stately processional that slowly increased its momentum to an urgent climax, then quickly returned to its serene opening stasis.
But as precisely conducted and finely executed as this work was, I could not banish that nagging question in the back of my mind, “Do we really need a minimalist update of Samuel Barber’s classic “Adagio for Strings”?
Of greater compositional interest was David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion,” the choral work that won this American artist the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Music. I was fortunate to hear Krishan Oberoi’s SACRA/PROFANA choral esemble give the local premiere of this Lang opus a few seasons back at Founders’ Chapel on the University of San Diego campus, and I must confess that Art of Élan’s version using four highly trained vocal soloists in lieu of a choir did not make the passion more compelling.
Sopranos Susan Narucki and Tiffany DuMouchelle, tenor Matthew Brown and bass Philip Larson sang with undimmed ardor and meticulous attention to detail. The balance of their ensemble and choice of vocal colors were laudable throughout the piece, but putting Lang’s “Little Match Girl” under the microscope for such close-up scrutiny was not a wise approach. What this piece requires is distance, time to resonate in a large room’s gentle acoustic, and the halo of sound a well-trained choral ensemble can impart. None of these virtues were accessible in the Hibben Gallery, where the audience sat only a few feet in front of the four singers in a dry room. This made the 35-minute Passion more tedious than tender, more esoteric that ethereal.
It is still an emotionally poignant and technically brilliant work, taking Hans Christian Anderson’s secular story of “The Little Match Girl” and casting it in the structural mode and liturgical ethos of a Baroque passion. Lang’s severe, highly distilled harmonic language owes something to Arvo Pärt’s austere, mystical choral writing, but Lang’s aphoristic phrase structures clearly express his own signature.
It was rewarding to encounter this work again, and I can only hope that more local choral ensembles will take it up and uncover its riches.