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Noted composer's passion confronts suffering, religion

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
David Lang has had two of his works performed in Austin recently.

Before the premiere of "The Little Match Girl Passion" at Carnegie Hall in 2007, composer David Lang worried that his secular work inspired by religious music the Passion recounts the story of Jesus in the hours before his crucifixion would be considered blasphemous.

"Because I am a religious person, I take other people's religion very seriously," Lang says. "I wondered if it would be considered disrespectful."

Using the format of J.S. Bach's monumental choral masterpiece "St. Matthew Passion," Lang — arguably previously best-known as an enfant terrible of the downtown New York music scene — built a mesmerizing choral work based on the Hans Christian Andersen folk tale of the little match girl who freezes to death in the streets on Christmas Eve.

It's a simple yet powerful story of human suffering told in haunting music of transcendent beauty: four voices a capella accompanied by simple percussion instruments — bells, chimes, small drums — which the singers play.

Blasphemous — hardly. "The Little Match Girl Passion" netted the composer the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music and critical acclaim. And the recording, on the Harmonia Mundi label, of "Little Match Girl" by Ars Nova Copenhagen and Theater of Voices received the Grammy for Best Ensemble this year.

This weekend, Austin's five-time Grammy nominated choir Conspirare will make Lang's masterwork the centerpiece of a program that also includes a portion of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion."

Lang wrote "Little Match Girl" as a commission from the Carnegie Hall Corp. and for the famed choral conductor Paul Hillier.

"I've been mostly known for short, obnoxious pieces," Lang says wryly, speaking by phone from Newcastle, England, where the Northern Sinfonia made his music the focus of a festival last month . "But I am a classical music nerd."

True. With degrees from Stanford and Yale universities, and a current faculty appointment at Yale, Lang has the credibility to call himself a nerd.

But he has counter-culture cred, too. As a co-founder of alt classical music group Bang on a Can, Lang has long been at the forefront of carving out a space for composers whose music doesn't fit into neat music industry-defined categories. (The Bang on a Can All-Stars will play UT's Bass Concert Hall next January.)

The commission for a new choral work set Lang thinking about the role of the Christian church in the shaping of the Western musical heritage.

"The church created this space for music and culture to flourish, and we wouldn't have so much of the Western cultural canon without the church," says Lang. Indeed. Like with so much music written to propagate the Christian faith, Lang found the emotionality of sweeping, monumental pieces such as Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" undeniable. But as an observant Jew, Lang found the Passion's condemnation of the Jews hard to ignore. "There's a pretty clear distinction (in the Passion) between the good people and the bad people."

"But being a classical music nerd, and so in love with so much of the music that came from church, and also being interested in my Jewish faith meant those two things were inevitably on a collision course," he says. "And I guess they did collide."

So why not, Lang thought, continue that collision.

"What if you took the story of Jesus out of the Passion," he says. "What if you took two things, which should not have worked in combination with each other — an incredibly religious and historically meaningful text and this sentimental tale of suffering by Hans Christian Andersen. What if those two things collided?"

They do, in Lang's "Little Match Girl Passion." Lang took pared-down versions of text from the Gospel of St. Matthew — the same that Bach used — and combined them with extracts of Andersen's text to make the libretto to his 35-minute work.

"I've always been attracted to text as the starting point for music," says Lang, whose chamber opera "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field" was just presented by the University of Texas' Theater and Dance Department. "I love having text to decode and interpret. So it was an experiment, treating this secular text as a religious text. But I worried, would it be noble enough? Could I make the story of the little match girl — which is ultimately a story about immense human suffering — resonate as powerfully as the story of the suffering of Jesus?"

But it's hardly easy to pull at the heart strings of the 21st-century audience.

"We're surrounded by pop culture, pop music which is expert at tapping directly into your emotions," says Lang. "The challenge (for the contemporary composer) is to put the emotionality back into music."

Lang's met the challenge. In awarding "The Little Match Girl Passion" the 2008 Pulitzer, Washington Post critic and Pulitzer judge Tim Page wrote, "I don't think that I've ever been so moved by a new composition."

"I never thought of myself as choral composer, but I'm happy to be honored and happy that the piece turned out the way it did," says Lang. "Now, I'd like to do more. I feel like I've gone down the rabbit hole into the whole world of choral music, and who knows where I'll land. But I'm looking forward to finding out."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

Conspirare's 'The Mystic and The Storyteller,' featuring David Lang's 'The Little Match Girl Passion'

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. May 9

Where: St. Martin's Lutheran Church, 606 W. 15th St.

Cost: $38-$42

Information: www.conspirare.org. 476-5775

Hill Country performance: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, St. Mary's Catholic Church, Fredericksburg. Cost: $20. Information: 830-997-7693