With the sweltering weather and the bustling of summer swallowing the city of Toronto last week, it’s hard to look back at those memories of winter and its harsh desolation. However, the isolation, aloneness, and human suffering (and all that is opposite of life, passion and love) will resonate with the power of this contrast at the Crow’s Theater on June 6 and 7 with Soundstreams’ last presentation for the season: The Little Match Girl Passion (David Lang) and I Think We Are Angels (James Rolfe).
Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Match Girl is an atypical children’s story — it’s brutal and short, an illustration of a death of the girl, abused and alone, dying on the street- frozen with red cheeks and a smiling mouth:
“Now someone is dying,” thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now dead, had told her that when a star fell down a soul went up to God.
The brief darkness of the little match girl is quite remarkable, and many remember it from childhood, if faintly: “I have a faint memory of my first hearing of this story years ago in elementary school… I was young but I remember reflecting on the sadness of the story.” — Vania Chan
There are two versions of LMGP, the first version commissioned by Paul Hillier’s Theater of Voices (SATB with percussion, 2008 Pulitzer winner), and a second version adapted for the Ars Nova Copenhagen (for twelve voices). For next week, Soundstreams chose the Soprano, Alto Tenor and Bass version with four extraordinary voices: Vania Chan, Andrea Ludwig, Colin Ainsworh and Stephen Hegedus, enhanced with added stage elements.
“The word Passion comes from the Latin word for suffering. There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus — rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus.”— David Lang
The composite text draws from H.C.Anderson, H.P.Paul (the first translator of the story in English, 1872), Picander and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, and the four singers work together to take the audience through the story.
“Our roles shift, depending on the scene and the text. Mostly we work together… then, there are special moments where we emotionally connect and reach out to the little match girl herself. We acknowledge our own human vulnerability through her…
We commiserate with her, we understand her pain, and we desperately wish we could relieve her of the injustice she is living through… I’m quite taken with the third movement, “Dearest Heart,” in which the four singers directly address the Little Match Girl — “Dearest heart, what did you do that was so wrong? Why is your sentence so hard?”
“It’s a movement of pause and collective reflection for all of us, and an opportunity to question the injustice of her situation and to reach out and comfort her.” — Vania Chan
“Preparation became more demanding when we all met and started to get it off the score. Luckily, it wasn’t too difficult to incorporate the instrument parts- I play the Glockenspiel, and though I’d never played a Glockenspiel in my life, it felt quite similar to keys on a piano… I really enjoy the fact that Glockenspiel works as an anchor to the piece. It is featured throughout the piece and carries a thematic thread through the work.
There’s so much beauty, and I do love the ninth movement, “Have Mercy,” for its pathos. I wasn’t familiar with the original story, but it seems very appropriate for the time, with all that is happening in the world, and in our own country. It takes a magnifying glass to own actions and how we treat others, especially those less fortunate, or in desperate need.” — Colin Ainsworth
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Along with the familiar, Rolfe’s new work, I Think We Are Angels, will receive its World premiere in this production. For this co-commission by Michael and Sonia Koerner and Stanley H. Witkin, Rolfe chose nineteen poems by Jewish-German poet Else Lasker-Schϋler (1869-1945). The cycle employs four singers (soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone), each with various bells, and about half of the cycle has accordion part (Michael Bridge):
“… It took a long time to figure out an arc for the poems to follow. Ultimately, the order is more or less chronological, beginning with poems bursting with youthful and idealistic passion, shifting to a love tempered by loss and failure, and finally to a larger and more spiritual view of life and love… The process of composing took place at the same time as sorting out the order – each singer has two or three solo songs, there are two female and two male duets, and four quartets; the accordion plays in about half the songs…
Her unapologetic sensuality, her celebration of love and lust, by the coexistence of the spiritual and the profane- her coming to terms with Jewish roots and spirituality, and my ancestry, which is also German-Jewish, by way of Berlin, resonated.” — James Rolfe
With our now familiar hyper-connectivity through the internet and social media, it’s easy to lose sight of anything and everything. There is always so much going on, and often we lose the humanity of it within ready-to-eat pop news and nuggets of entertainment. Even the idea of going to a live performance, instead of popping up free, instant-access YouTube and other easy platforms, becomes laboured as we are already so used to having cost-free, immediate solutions and interactions. But there are moments that stick with us. These are stories and scenes from reality, of human joy and suffering.
Perhaps it’s time for us to sit down quietly, and revisit that old message, with bit of space, silence and reflection: “You need to pay attention to the suffering of people around you.” (Lang, for the Los Angeles Times, 2011)