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Clara and the Little Match Girl

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
David Lang, The Little Match Girl Passion (inter alia), Theater of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen, P. Hillier

(Harmonia Mundi, 2009)

available at Amazon
Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker, Kirov Orchestra and Choir, V. Gergiev

(Decca, 1998)
David Lang hit upon something transcendent in his The Little Match Girl Passion, a quality that has not struck me in any other work by him. That emotionally powerful piece was at the heart of an intriguing program from the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Singers, which kicked off the Holiday Concert season on Friday night at the Clarice Smith Center. As Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl freezes to death, ignored by everyone on a cold New Year's Eve, she hallucinates fantasy images of a roasted goose feast, an immense Christmas tree, and ultimately her grandmother, who takes her into the life beyond. At the same time, perhaps even in the house on the street where the girl dies, another little girl receives a magical gift from her strange godfather and, in a sugar-induced dream, experiences a fantasy life with her nutcracker toy.

The Nutcracker is a perennial holiday favorite chez Ionarts. Because of the ballet's role in the United States as a December cash cow aimed at families, choreographers rarely approach the work with the adult, even subversive eye that could yield interesting things. This juxtaposition came close, revealing the privilege of Clara's family life -- and, by extension, all of us who take our children to see The Nutcracker. Conductor James Ross chose wisely from Tchaikovsky's score, with ten orchestral selections by his orchestra interspersed within a complete performance of Lang's work by Steven Seigert's University of Maryland Chamber Singers. The "Arrival of the Guests" passage offset the Match Girl's fear of her abusive father; the "Dance of the Snowflakes" (with the chorus singing the choral part) was contrasted to the terrible effects of the freezing temperature on the girl's feet; movements from the Land of the Sweets ("Coffee" and "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy") went with the Match Girl's vision of the feast; and that magical section where Clara sees the Christmas tree grow to an enormous height as she shrinks to mouse size accompanied the Match Girl's vision of the tree.

The chorus had the upper hand in terms of the quality of the performance, with only a couple shortcomings, mostly on the male side of the group, and excellent female solo moments. Things were not so assured with the orchestra, the difficulties of the score exposing the woodwind players especially, with problems of intonation across the board and labored flutter-tonguing in the flutes. The celesta player was on the money in the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. On some level, the juxtaposition undermined the individual strengths of both works, as some of the cumulative power of Lang's piece was sapped by the orchestral interruptions and the reordering and excerpting of Tchaikovsky's score disrupted its narrative strength. Even so, being regularly confronted with the comfort of one girl's life only heightened the tragedy of the other girl's life.

I neglected to mention the video projections, designed by Tim McLoraine, which were shown on a screen behind the chorus and on the back wall of the hall. Such things tend only to get in the way of the music, but spectators unfamiliar with the two works may have found them helpful.

Little Match Girl Passion / Nutcracker, University of Maryland Symphony and Chamber Singers
(photo by Geoff Sheil for the Clarice Smith Center)

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