Virginia Chorale: The Little Match Girl Passion
Sacred Heart Catholic Church, February 8, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

A little more than three centuries separates composers Johann Sebastian Bach and David Lang. The Virginia Chorale, under the admirably fluid conducting of Charles Woodward, brought works by both into fortunate juxtaposition February 8 at Sacred Heart Church in Norfolk.

The first half featured works by Bach, sung by the Chorale with subtle accompaniment by organist Bradley Norris playing an interesting little organ with interior pipes and no pedals; Sarah Glosson provided bass on viola da gamba.

Lobet den Herrn is a setting of Psalm 117’s praise, whose rippling Alleluias exuded pure joy. O Haupt, voll Blut und Wunden—its hymn tune familiar as the Passion Chorale, “O Sacred Head Surrounded”— was the first of two selections from Bach’s masterwork, the St. Matthew Passion. It was sung a cappella simply and beautifully. Herzliebster Jesu, also from the St. Matthew Passion, asked the question, “Beloved Jesus, what has thou done wrong?”

The pristine Ich bin’s, ich sollte büssen was on the heartfelt text, “I should atone for what you endured.” Viola da gamba and organ helped Woodward bring out all the dramatic colors of the eleven sections of Bach’s funeral motet Jesu, meine Freude (Jesus, my joy), especially the pure, floating soprano lines, rich altos and satisfying tenors and basses of the third section. The fourth featured a solo trio of sopranos Corbin Thomas Shoup and Anna Feucht and alto Emily Russell. In the fifth, the middle part—“Rage, O world, and rear up. I shall stand here and sing in confident tranquility”—was particularly lovely.

Alto Bonnie Lambert-Baxter, tenor Scott Crissman and baritone Marshall Severin—brought out the meaning of the eighth section with clarity and respect. After an SAB octet, the Chorale evoked all the drama of the tenth section, before the final return of the Jesu Meine Freude melody. These demanding works required—and got—the singers’ complete concentration, superb choral breathing and clear diction.

David Lang originally wrote The Little Match Girl Passion as a commission for the four voices of Paul Hilliard and the Theatre of Voices; it won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2008. He later rearranged it for chorus and percussion played by members of the chorus: brake drum, crotales (small cymbals), glockenspiel, sleighbells, bass drum and tubular bells.

Drawn into the transcendence of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Lang was looking for a way to tell the passion story in a secular way; his wife suggested the Hans Christian Anderson story of “The Little Match Girl,” in which a poor and desperate girl, ignored by the crowd around her, suffers, freezes to death and is transfigured. The Virginia Chorale was at once narrator and observer, tellers of the tale and witnesses to suffering.

The opening section, “Come, daughter,” created a mood with piercing questions—Come, Help, Look, Where, Who, Why, Gone—with insistent phrases repeated rapidly. The story unfolded in sections of short, rising phrases, interrupted and restated intently.

As the chorus made its way through the story, the little match girl was brought to life by Caroline Rigby, with a mobile face and almost unobtrusive physical intensity that grew into the ecstasy of being united with her dead grandmother, who brings the girl into heaven. Directed by Jeffrey Gallo (who also directed last season’s stunning Path of Miracles), Rigby was low-key but effective, giving the story a face without distracting from the chorus.

The third section, “Dearest heart,” echoed Bach’s Herzliebster Jesu: “What did you do that was so wrong? Why is your sentence so hard?” Later, the men intoned a near direct quote from the bible: “From the sixth hour there was darkness. . . . and at the ninth hour she cried out Eli, Eli.”

The little girl rose up from death, turning and turning with glacial slowness while the chorus sang long notes against rapid “staystaystaystay.” It ended with quiet repetitions of “Rest soft. Rest soft,” diminishing into silence.

Woodward, as a conductor, has an unusual ability to “disappear” into the music, so that one sees and hears the singers . . . and then, at the end, is surprised—“Oh, you were there all along.” The results speak for themselves.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

Virginia Chorale: 88x2
Christ and St. Luke's Church, Norfolk
May 31, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

On the last day in May, in the sumptuous acoustics of Christ & St. Luke’s Church, Norfolk, the Virginia Chorale under the seamless direction of Charles Woodward presented 88x2—music for choir and piano four hands. In case you’re not familiar with the piano four hands term, it simply means one piano with two players— in this case, pianists Stephen Coxe and Rebecca Raydo.

The chorus began with the world premiere performance of an a cappella arrangement by Chaz Stuart of The Star-Spangled Banner, which contrasted men’s and women’s voices nicely in an approach that Woodward called “almost nocturnal.”

The first section ranged from Bengali chants to classical Latin to lively contemporary. Craig Hella Johnson’s Gitanjali Chants, on texts by the Bengali poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore, began in unison, with the men singing the chant melody against the women’s “oohs” and vice versa, adding simple effective harmonies on plaintive phrases. Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus—“As the deer longs for running streams,” from Psalm 42—provided a confluence of soaring streams of gorgeous sound, beautifully sung.

Jake Runestad’s Alleluia was a complete change of pace—sung from memory because there was no other way to keep up with its demands. Tricky changes of verbal emphasis and tricky clapping hands gave way to a slower section, then back to the brilliant rhythmic writing. Not for nothing did Woodward refer to Runestad as a “bright star of contemporary choral music.”

Pianists Coxe and Raydo joined the Chorale for the four movements of The Dream Keeper, by William Averitt on texts by African-American poet Langston Hughes. In the first movement, the piano sounded like falling rain against the singers’ rich sustained chords. The chorus brought out the onomatopoetic writing of “to whirl and to dance” in Dream Variations. As I Grow Older was a bittersweet reverie in which the dreams of youth break through the shadow into a “thousand whirling dreams of sun!” The final movement, Song, was a lively, syncopated tango with perpetual motion accompaniment and an abruptly passionate ending.

From The Tender Land, Aaron Copland’s lone opera, The Promise of Living is a choral anthem that celebrates the cooperation of frontier living. As the choir sang, “For many a year we’ve known these fields . . . Are you ready to lend a hand?” their overlapping voices evoked the growing, the shared harvest and peace with neighbors.

The ethereal Beati Quorum Via (Blessed are the undefiled) by Charles Villiers Stanford was sung a cappella in excellent church Latin. The Chorale performed the soaring beauty of Wie Lieblich Sind Deine Wohnungen (How lovely are thy dwelling places) by Brahms in memory of the internationally acclaimed bass-baritone James Weaver, who died suddenly in early May; he had long been director of music at Williamsburg Presbyterian Church.

The justly renowned Alice Parker’s gorgeous nine-part Songstream cycle uses the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay to express the long life of beauty (in To Kathleen), the shortness of life (in Mariposa), and the question Why you? in the rhythmic The Philosopher with its quick ending. The light, cheerful melody of The Spring and the Fall contrasts with the poet’s lament that love “went in little ways.” In the waltz Nuit Blanche (White Night), a sleepless shepherd remembers old hurts. The syncopated Merry Maid claims to be happy “since my heart broke.” A fickle lover is dismissive in Thursday, but the bittersweet recollection of love in Passer Mortuus Est (Sparrow is dead) asks, “Need we say it was not love/Just because it perished?” The final section, Lethe, through odd descending modulations and liquid piano sounds evokes drinking from the underworld river of forgetfulness—just gorgeous.

With a slightly different text than one is used to hearing, the rolling river of Shenandoah comes through in the piano. The arrangement by Mack Wilberg, director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, respects the original melody. Wilberg also wrote the arrangement of the final song, the traditional Cindy, with stylish accompaniment, a hoedown feel, tricky rhythmic clapping, and lively syncopation—what fun! In the encore, pianists Coxe and Raydo repeated the intro for a reprise of the last two verses.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

Back to Review Index

Home  Calendar  Announcements  Issues  Reviews  Articles Contact Us