Columbia Pro Cantare offers something old and something new for its next concert on Sunday, March 10, at 3 p.m. at First Evangelical Lutheran Church. There's a religious link of sorts between the old and new pieces, so having this concert take place in an Ellicott City church is spiritually fitting.
The old piece dates back to the 19th century and will be familiar to many chorus and audience members alike, because Sunday's concert marks the sixth time that Columbia Pro Cantare has done Gabriel Faure's Requiem. The new piece, David Lang's "The Little Match Girl Passion," which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, is receiving its first Columbia Pro Cantare performance.
Although Lang originally composed his piece for four voices, he also did an arrangement for chamber chorus. It's the latter version that will be performed by Columbia Pro Cantare's 26-voice Chamber Singers.
Based on a short story by Hans Christian Anderson, this 35-minute-long composition strives to achieve what the composer has described as an "equilibrium between suffering and hope."
When the barefoot girl in Anderson's tale is forced to go out into the snow and sell matchsticks, it's such a literally chilling story that Columbia Pro Cantare music director Frances Motyca Dawson observed that "it is child abuse. She is sent out to sell matches in the cold."
In musically retelling Anderson's story, some of the 15 sections in Lang's text add thematic material prompting listeners to make connections between the girl's suffering and that of Jesus. Also in that respect, while Lang's piece does not overtly emulate Bach's St. Matthew Passion, it does evoke the sacred aura of this venerable composition.
"It's not a religious piece, but there is an awareness of Bach," Dawson said.
Lang's composition is a difficult piece for any chorus to learn. The instruments, which include a glockenspiel, need to be extremely precise in their playing.
And, as if it weren't enough that the voices often do not come in on the beat, there is a wavelike quality as the voices roll over each other; this is an effect that should be accentuated by the acoustic "reverb" one can expect in the church.
"The complexity makes it a feat," Dawson said of the rehearsal process for the piece that will open the upcoming concert. "It's been an illuminating experience for them to learn this hauntingly beautiful piece."
The performance of David Lang's piece also should be an illuminating experience for an audience that deserves to know his work better. A music professor at Yale University, Lang was named the 2013 Composer of the Year by Musical America magazine.
Lang also recently has been getting attention as one of the composers commissioned by Baltimore-bred violinist Hilary Hahn to write short violin and piano encores for her in a project she calls "In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores."
Following Lang's piece and intermission, the second half of the concert will be given over to Faure's Requiem. He originally composed this Requiem for a funeral mass in a Paris church, then added more orchestral forces for a revamped version in 1888. For the Columbia Pro Cantare performance of that 1888 version, the vocal soloists are soprano Juliana Kaiser and baritone Kihyun Moon.
Unlike the melancholic mood established by Lang's piece and, for that matter, the suffering incorporated in most classical treatments of the Requiem, Faure's piece is lighter in nature.
"It's just so incredibly beautiful and so well-crafted," Dawson said about Faure's eternally popular Requiem.
She said its uplifting quality comes from "the fact that there is no 'Dies Irae,' no Day of Judgment. It's just the way you'd like to think of life going, especially when you see life taken away in the other piece."