One Passion inspires another

Westminster Choir performs two passions during Spoleto Festival 2015, one by J.S. Bach and one by David Lang.

This week, the Spoleto Festival takes two views of the musical and narrative form of the Passion.

In traditional Christian worship, the Passions tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. The story is often recited or sung during the Easter holiday, on Good Friday or Palm Sunday. The most famous and widely performed musical setting is J.S. Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”

“It is one of the greatest monuments of music ever written,” said Joe Miller, the Spoleto Festival’s director of choral activities. Miller will conduct the Westminster Choir in a performance of the work for solo voice, double chorus and double orchestra Wednesday at the Sottile Theatre.

A different kind of Passion is offered tonight and Sunday, when the choir will perform David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Little Match Girl Passion” at the Emmett Robinson Theatre. Lang’s retelling juxtaposes the Christian Passion themes with Hans Christian Anderson’s story of a child who freezes to death while trying to make money for her family.

Lang decided to set this story after recognizing a challenge faced by classical musicians who don’t identify with Christianity.

“You listen to Beethoven’s ‘Missa solemnis’ and Mozart’s ‘Requiem,’” Lang said. “All the great composers from the Western classical tradition spent a huge amount of energy trying to figure out how to use music to help people worship Jesus.”

The Christian church was the first musical patron, funding the creation of much of the classical canon. Lang, who is religious but not Christian, says that non-Christian composers often reach a closed door in their studies, behind which “there is knowledge here that’s not for you.” In 2008, Lang decided to break down the door.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I can figure out how to look at that issue, and find something from the great and glorious tradition of Christian religious music,’ ” he said.

To do this, he placed Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl” in dialogue with the texts of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” and searched for a universal message that would appeal to everyone, not just Christians.

“People watch the suffering of Jesus and say, ‘Why aren’t we helping that person?’ ” he said. “And then they say, ‘Let’s dedicate ourselves to make sure that that kind of suffering doesn’t happen in front of us as we stand by unmoved.’ That’s a very beautiful idea. We don’t need that as Christians or Jews or Muslims or Atheists. It’s something we need as ordinary citizens.”

Bach, a consummate Baroque beneficiary of the church’s patronage, used musical structure to express his religious belief. Lang wanted to honor that by using structure to express his own. Throughout the piece’s 15 movements, the story of the “Little Match Girl” alternates with texts from the “St. Matthew Passion.”

The first “Little Match Girl” movements are contrapuntal and rhythmically “messy,” like the little girl’s life, Lang said. But each time the story returns, the vocalists’ rhythms are slightly more aligned.

“She’s on a path to purification,” he said. “They’re moving toward singing the text together at the same time in the same rhythm, and they almost get there. Almost.”

Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg, who will create an accompanying work for two dancers, says that he sees the story of this little girl all too often.

“Especially in New York City, that little match girl is everywhere,” Lidberg said. “There are homeless people on every corner. This is not about one child. This is all around us.”

“The Little Match Girl Passion” will be performed alongside Giacomo Carissimi’s “Jephte,” another Biblical tale of a man who promises God he will sacrifice the first person he sees upon arriving home, in exchange for victor in battle. The first person he sees is his daughter.

Miller will conduct the choir in both Passion performances, and says that preparing them has been both challenging and rewarding.

“The Lang Passion deals so much with the power of silence. We use a lot of stillness and quiet to be able to sing it,” Miller said. “Every time that we rehearse it, it is like we are having worship in the rehearsal room.”

Rehearsing the “St. Matthew Passion,” he says, is all about “building the stamina to concentrate, to sing and perform the music.” For the three-hour work, the Westminster Choir will be joined by the Taylor Festival Choir, New York Baroque Incorporated performing on period instruments, and the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra.

Miller says that audiences will see a “profound universalism” between the pieces, and no matter their belief, they will have a “very spiritual” experience.

Sarah Hope is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.