THE CROSSING, Saturday, Feb. 9, 8 p.m., $10–$25, Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, Durham, dukeperformances.duke.edu
Whose stories can help us understand suffering? In classical music, a “passion” generally tells the story of the suffering of Christ, which has traditionally been treated as uniquely tragic and transcendent. In composer David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, the story is humbler, but no less haunting: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl,” in which an impoverished, abused child freezes to death on the street as she imagines her late grandmother welcoming her home.
The Crossing has told this story before, and they do it exquisitely, richly conveying both the desolation and the beauty of the original story. The Crossing is something unusual: a twenty-four-voice chamber choir dedicated to performing new music. For composers, working with the group is a rare chance to write for a large, talented group willing to experiment. And for the rest of us, attending one of their concerts is a chance to hear familiar tales in a new format.
At Duke, the program begins with other contemplations of loss, including Lang’s solemn, deliberate make peace, a take on the Jewish prayer of mourning. The words of the title are a repeated exhortation, rolling in like waves to prepare the audience for the sad story that will follow. Ahead of the performance, we spoke to Donald Nally, the conductor of The Crossing, about how art can help us turn tragedy into something transcendent.
INDY: “The Little Match Girl” is a powerful story—I remember encountering it as a child and feeling absolutely bereft at the idea of this child dying alone in the cold.
DONALD NALLY: David [Lang], the composer, says that the story has kind of a naive equilibrium between suffering and hope. And I think that’s true. There’s this incredible moment where [the girl] notices that a star is going out, and she remembers that her grandmother had told her that means someone is dying. You imagine her thinking, “Oh, I feel sorry for this person who’s dying.” It’s incredibly touching to see this little girl, who’s just trying to do the right thing, to see her not realize that she’s the one who’s dying. There’s something in that that captures the whole thing for me.
Is there a way that telling this story transcends the sadness of it?
For me, it’s a piece about the way in which we observe the suffering of others. And whether or not we observe it. Because in the story, there are obviously some people who observe her and don’t take her in. We observe her, and we observe the people who we imagine ignoring her. There’s a lot of value in doing pieces of music that talk about how we treat each other and how we observe they way we treat each other, right?
How do you tell this story as a choir?
It’s kind of chanted in a very beautiful manner and in a way that’s very, very direct. And then between these moments of the storytelling, there are little textures taken from various sources like Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” It’s not overtly religious. But there’s a strange spirituality about it.
A lot of the story is about being left alone. So one of the last movements ends with the choir singing, “Stay with me,” over and over and over again. It’s really, really remarkable. It’s text from a chorale in “St. Matthew’s Passion,” with the Christian part of it taken out. You’re left with the quintessential aspect, which is, “When it is time for me to leave, don’t leave me.” We go back and forth between the very direct telling of this very real, poignant but not sentimental story, and then this request not to be left alone.
Poignant but not sentimental—why is that distinction important?
I think when we sentimentalize things in art, we run the risk of making them about ourselves. And that isn’t really what art does. Art speaks to us because we recognize the ideas or the feelings or the images of another person, and we relate to them.
Given everything going on in this moment, what does it mean to perform a piece like this in 2019?
I’m not really interested in doing pieces that don’t speak to us and our world. In the programming of The Crossing, everything has to do with the way we live our lives right at this minute. We don’t do historical music. Not to say that you can’t relate to historical music, but our performances are about our lives right now. One can’t not be struck by the human cruelty behind a story like this. And we see a lot of cruelty today.
A few of the other pieces you’re performing were written in honor of The Crossing’s late cofounder, Jeff Dinsmore. How do they fit in with The Little Match Girl Passion?
In April of 2014, we were out at the LA Philharmonic. We were about to start a rehearsal, and Jeff just had a heart attack and died. It changed everything about our lives. I decided one of the ways I’d like to memorialize him is to ask fifteen composers whose lives Jeff had crossed or intersected with if they would write a work of three to five minutes. They gave us permission to make a book out of them, a volume called “Jeff Quartets.” It was really generous on everyone’s part, and we have these wonderful pieces of music.
[For this concert,] I decided to put together five of those Jeff Quartets that go on a little journey. They look at how we try to make peace with each other, and they look at how we deal with loss, and they look at how we deal with love. They’re related to each other because they’re all a journey through life, and yet they’re quite a variety of styles.
That’s interesting to me, because I’d assumed that these pieces would all be about loss or mourning. Does memorializing someone necessarily mean creating an expression of grief?
I don’t think it needs to be! I don’t think memorials always have to be grief stricken. They can be celebrations. Or they can be something that that person enjoyed. For us, memorials aren’t limited to pieces that are sad. In fact, Jeff’s memorial fund funds our Christmas concert. He loved our Christmas concert. It’s probably an odd choice to have an annual Jeffrey Dinsmore Memorial Christmas Concert. But it fits, because that would have made him smile.