Storytelling by singers carried the March performances of Resonance Works | Pittsburgh as works by David Lang opened and closed a moving and fascinating program at the historic Homewood Cemetery. Themes of faith, loss, and eternal life resonated throughout two evenings featuring top Pittsburgh artists and guests performing pieces from Bach in the Baroque period to works by 20th and 21st century composers.
A stunning site-specific experience born of a well-conceived partnership with Homewood Cemetery, little match girl passion was a program centered around the regional premiere of that Lang work, but the evening offered much more.
The prelude in the Chapel’s Reception Hall featured the a cappella welcome Lang’s haunting o graveyard (lay this body down), sung by the 22-voice Festival Chorus. A string quartet performed Jennifer Higdon’s exquisitely beautiful arrangement of “Amazing Grace”, plumbing the simple and complex possibilities of the familiar Victorian melody. Intrepid guests then took a pre-dusk tour led by Jennie Benford, director of programming for the Homewood Cemetery Historical Fund. The short stroll provided glimpses of some of the Cemetery’s monuments, views, history, and native deer.
In the warmth of the restored chapel Artistic Director and Founder Maria Sensi Sellner then conducted an artistic and emotional journey indeed pointed “towards eternity,” as Emily Dickinson might say.
Sellner wove an effective and moving exploration of universal themes she lists in her program note as “longing, remembrance, grief hope, love, peace, darkness and light, the instant versus eternity.” The resulting 90 musical minutes were indeed evocative of life and death with voices and instruments alternately dwelt in the possibilities throughout diverse works. Sellner tallied “eight works by seven composers from six countries (and five who are living composers).”
The regional premiere of Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning little match girl passion (2007) was the central yet final piece of a program that began with two works by Bach, whose St. Matthew Passion initially inspired Lang. His musical version of Hans Christian Anderson’s story, a 35-minute work, was intimately profound in Homewood’s Chapel, not far from the unmarked graves of poor Pittsburghers. Lang alternates sections inspired by the Passion format. His text retells the story of an impoverished child who is sent into the freezing night by her abusive father to sell matches. Afraid to return to their drafty house when she is unsuccessful, she succumbs in the cold darkness. As Lang writes: “Through it all, she somehow retains her Christian purity of spirit, but it is not a pretty story.”
But Lang’s alignment of the Passion format with this tragic tale is imaginative as sung by four soloists and chorus with only percussion instruments as accompaniment. little match girl passion is indeed text driven and voice intensive. It’s innovative yet traditional, simple yet complex from its short, repetitive melodies to contrapuntal intricacies. Four featured soloists also play most of the “simple percussion” instruments. Truly, no further instrumentation was needed for us to hear the voice and spirit of that small girl.
Soprano Meghan DeWald and mezzo-soprano Barbara LeMay beautifully led the telling. Ian McEuen’s sweet tenor frequently soared. Matthew Scollin, bass-baritone, provides strong support vocally and as player of the largest featured instrument. Featured instruments also included sleigh bells, xylophone, cymbals, and more, but Lang’s libretto–echoing the familiar scripture and text of the Passion and closing with the poignant and moving: “We sit and cry, And call to you, Rest soft, daughter, rest soft…”
While Lang’s imaginative and inspired combination of the Picander (aka Christian Friedrich Henrici) libretto of Bach’s work with Anderson’s story is fascinating, Sellner’s setting this piece and the entire program in such a perfectly evocative and reverent place demonstrates the creative intuitive creativity at the heart of the Resonance mission.
DeWald was also soloist for Lua descolorida (2002), Osvaldo Golijov’s six-minute setting of a darkly spiritual Spanish poem. The soprano’s performance was as luminous as the colorless moon of the title, beautifully navigating a musical exploration love and loss with the orchestra strings.
Pittsburgh Symphony principal flutist Lorna McGhee was featured on two pieces, first on J.S. Bach’s Concerto in C Major , BWV 1055, originally written to featured oboe d’amore. McGhee’s virtuosity shone throughout the three movements which garnered a long audience ovation.
Her second performance was in Leonard Bernstein’s Halil (“flute”) (1981), which memorialized Israeli flutist Yadin Tanenbuam who was killed during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Here, McGhee was supported by outstanding featured players Anna Cooper on piccolo and Josie Kost on alto flute, with timpani, percussion and strings. Definitely, Bernstein and as brilliantly compelling as his 20th century compositions can be, Halil, as programmed by Sellner, provided a contrasting showpiece for McGhee who displayed another level of artistry as demanded by this vividly dramatic and modern piece.
Violinist Maureen Conlon Gutiérrez led the delightfully intriguing Frates (“brethren”), a 1977 work first adapted for violin in 1980 by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. In dialogue with strings and percussion, Guiterrez conversed musically in the technique of “tintinnabuli,” grown from the composer’s mystical and musical experiences. Pärt likens his exploration of triads to bells, mining their possible relationships to a central pitch. Gutiérrez displayed superb artistry in this fascinating 10-minute piece with the audience’s ovation indicating they would have enjoyed more from this soloist.
Much of the program nicely alternated between pieces featuring the stellar Festival Chorus and featured soloists under Sellner’s expressive and exacting baton. The Resonance Chamber Orchestra, comprised of some of the region’s top instrumentalists, was outstanding whether playing in full or as featured as soloists or sections. Uliana Kozhevnikova, who also serves as rehearsal pianist, provided lovely support at harpsichord and organ, particularly for the two Bach selections. Likewise, Joel Goodloe, assistant conductor and chorus master, as performed in the bass section in addition to working in concert production.
Varied periods and styles made this an exciting menu for the singers featured as the choir for Bach’s Komm, Jesu, Komm (with continuo only) and the a cappella works How Long Ago (2008) by Costas Dafnis, and Lux Aeterna (2009) by James McMillan.
Voices rising through the darkness and quiet of Homewood Cemetery stirred the 272 appreciative souls who filled the sold-out Chapel pews over the evenings of March 17 and 18. The music undoubtedly reassured those represented by both the named and unnamed markers throughout the more than two acres outside. Resonance Works might want call again on these pieces in varied context for future programs; these pieces indeed merit further exploration and experience.
Resonance Works next produces the regional premiere for the opera Rusalka by Dvořák on Fri., May 11 and Sun., May 13 in the Charity Randall Theatre. This story of an alluring water nymph who falls in love with a human prince will be presented in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh Department of Theatre Arts. For details on artists and tickets, visit ResonanceWorks.org.
Chapel photos by Alisa Garin Photography. Cemetery photo by Yvonne Hudson.
Categories: Archived Reviews