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Music review: Jacaranda blooms in winter

January 23, 2011 |  2:46 pm

There was a slight nip in the air in Santa Monica, so Jacaranda, the new music series, took appropriate measures Saturday night to ensure the proper temperature level in the First Presbyterian Church for the first West Coast performance of the chamber version of David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion.” It turned up the musical air conditioning.

Though not all winter themed, four diverse contemporary works (two American, two from Russia) were meant as a cross-country ski through an icy landscape. Lang’s job, then, was to warm a frostbitten night. In a 35-minute missive from heaven, four solo singers in transfixed harmony, accompanying themselves with gentle percussion, transcended worldly misery.

Why Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” has attracted the fancy of Japanese manga artists, avant-garde German composer Helmut Lachenmann (whose “Match Girl” opera is brilliantly strange) and Sarah Brightman (“A Winter Symphony”) is something I cannot begin to explain. But credit Lang with an epic effort of elevation. Combining Andersen’s text with aspects of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” he found a radiantly hip spiritual core to a maudlin story that stubbornly refuses to go out of fashion.

Unable to sell her matches and afraid to go home, a waif spends a frigid New Year’s Eve outdoors turning blue while the heartless world parties indoors with holiday goose and roaring fires. Her matches, lit one by one, illuminate her sad, cold departure from the land of the living.

Lang, one of the three founders of the Bang on a Can new music collective, is a plucky composer impossible to pin down. Twenty-five years ago and just out of Yale, he titled his impudent first orchestra piece (a Cleveland Orchestra commission, no less) “Eating Living Monkeys.” He has written audaciously loud, fast and aggressive scores, as well as audaciously soft and still ones. I am quoted in the program as having once said there is no name for this kind of music. But Lang gave up musical monkey sushi sometime back. Today, I'd call him post-stylistic.

“Match Girl” might even be called post-Pärt, in that it gives an American accent to the numinous style of the Estonian Arvo Pärt. Perhaps Lang was also drawn to the fact that Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, which premiered “Match Girl” at Carnegie Hall in 2007, is an ensemble partial to Pärt. One could now  say that there is no name for this kind of beauty.

But there certainly is an audience. “Match Girl” won a Pulitzer. Hillier’s recording got a Grammy. First Presbyterian was full Saturday, and the audience sat transfixed in pews. The performance of this four-voice version -- sung by soprano Elissa Johnston, alto Adrianna Manfredi, tenor Grant Gershon and bass Cedric Berry –- was a stunner. Free-flowing voices floated as if unmoored by acoustics.

What preceded “Match Girl” in the first half was Elliott Carter’s intricate 1952 Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord, followed by Sofia Gubaidulina’s colorfully out-there “Light and Darkness” for solo organ and Joan Tower’s “Night Fields,” her first string quartet. After intermission, Alfred Schnittke’s crazy duo for trombone and organ served as a quasi-overture to “Match Girl,” a stand-in for the heartless world the pathetic kid found herself in.

Maybe this was all a bit much, but the performances were convincing. Gloria Cheng was the harpsichordist for an engagingly white-knuckled reading of Carter’s challenging quartet. Organist Mark Alan Hilt, Jacaranda’s music director, enlivened Gubaidulina’s mysterious bass rumblings and sizzling clashes of high notes. The Lyris Quartet turned Tower’s Arctic winds and dark moods into a dramatic spectacle. Trombonist Steve Suminski didn’t always keep a straight face, but Schnittke’s grotesque warm-up made the “Match Girl” all the more moving.

I am also happy to report that our own cold, heartless world doesn’t lack pockets of warmth. Jacaranda’s list of supporters seems to grow longer with each concert in this increasingly impressive series.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: From left, Grant Gershon, Adrianna Manfredi and Elissa Johnston, who, along with Cedric Berry, performed David Lang's "The Little Match Girl Passion" at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica Saturday night. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times.