Review: Capital Chamber Choir uncorks refreshing Little Match Girl Passion

The Capital Chamber Choir.

On Friday evening at St. Joseph’s Parish church, Jamie Loback and the Capital Chamber Choir presented a refreshingly modern, discovery-driven program that reflected seasonal themes while staying well clear of tired Messiah and carol clichés.

The evening’s cornerstone was David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion. The prolific American composer won a Pulitzer in 2008 for this spare, 35-minute oratorio, which weaves together Hans Christian Andersen’s sad tale with imagery and forms in the manner of Bach’s great choral Passions. 

In his notes, Lang describes his desire to juxtapose the suffering and death from freezing of the neglected child in the story with the suffering and death of Christ. Depending on your interpretation and spiritual beliefs (or lack of them), this framing can be off-putting — the poor are only worthy of compassion if they are pure and innocent victims like the little girl — or it can serve as a reminder of the New Testament quote: “that which you do to the least of these, you do unto me.”

Religious debate aside, Little Match Girl Passion is a stunning piece of choral writing: urgent, moving, sparsely elegant. Lang uses repetition as a narrative and an expressive effect throughout the work, alternating swiftly moving sections of Andersen’s text with “crowd reaction”-type scenes, where the choir exclaims its grief and sorrow at the events in the story. 

In the former, the words are sung in little halting, broken ascending scales that keep starting over, never finishing their eight-note rise to completion. The reactive choruses borrow heavily from Bach, in thematic inspiration if not in musical style: the opening chorus commands “Come, daughter”, mirroring the Kommt, ihr Töchter at the beginning of the St. Matthew Passion; the final movement pleading “Rest soft” like the penultimate movement of the St. John Passion.

This type of work is ideal for the Capital Chamber Choir, showing off the purity of its sound, the precision of its intonation, the virtuosity of its singers. There were a few quibbles: the English text was not always clear, and some vocal fatigue was evident in some extended, exacting passages of repeated high notes for the women. But overall, the choir produced a convincing, convicted effort under Loback’s limpid direction, with Alec Joly Pavelich providing atmospheric support on percussion (bass drum, bells, glockenspiel)

Three short contemporary pieces made up the first half of the evening. British-American composer Tarik O’Regan’s Turn is marked by restless, hypnotically oscillating patterns, with floating fragments of melody appearing in the slipstream before being sucked back into the rolling current. Ottawa composer Emily Green’s Paradise: In a Dream sets four poems by the pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti (inexplicably listed as John Christina Rossetti in the program). Green’s writing is competent if still developing, and fits a stylistic niche. I found the music a little somnolent and treacly for my taste, lacking in dramatic contrast from piece to piece. 

My Light, by Vancouver’s Katerina Gimon, showed why she is one of the most exciting young vocal composers in Canada. It’s crammed with extended techniques: twinkling pointillism, improvised sounds, swooping glissandi and fade effects. In the hands of a less accomplished artist, it would just have come across as chaotic, show-off, and pointlessly difficult. Instead, Gimon has written a rewarding little jewel that any chamber choir would have a blast learning and performing. 

In the spirit of giving to those less fortunate, the choir will donate a percentage of the concert’s ticket sales to St. Joseph’s Women’s Centre.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.