F rom the wretched cold of cobbled streets to the brief flare of hope with the strike of a match, Vox Humana Choir’s performance of The Little Match Girl Passion distills all the heartbreak of a traditional passion play down into one little girl’s world this Easter weekend.
Written by composer David Lang and awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, the musical is based on Hans Christian Anderson’s original story of a poor young girl, beaten by her father, who tries unsuccessfully to sell matches on the street. Slowly freezing, she lights the matches one by one for their small bursts of warmth, seeing visions of love and comfort in each few seconds of light, but eventually succumbs to the elements.
“She has this pure, pure heart, and she’s completely ignored, and suffers in many ways because of the public,” says the show’s conductor, Brian Wismath. “In that way, it’s similar to the story of Jesus.”
Lang kept the traditional structure that Bach employed in the St. Matthew Passion, but redirected the suffering and pain onto an ordinary person, the little match girl, and in that way, brought the story to a new level of accessibility for people outside the Christian faith.
The Little Match Girl Passion also explores what happens when the sufferer blends in with the crowd, and the reactions from passers-by.
“Half of the story is told through narrative, and then there are movements in which the crowd respond to what is happening,” says Wismath. “So there’s this constant conversation between events happening and the response from the people around it.”
Wismath’s first encounter with the performance came in 2013 when he performed the show with a choir to a sold-out audience and ever since he’s been wanting to perform it in its original four-part format.
Soloists Kristen Birley, Stephanie Sartore, Carman J. Price and Steven Bélanger are taking the stage this time around.
“We’re working with four of the strongest choral singers in B.C., easily,” says Wismath. “It’s been very artistically satisfying working with these musicians.”
Equally satisfying has been working with the material itself, he says.
In the current age of the internet and the connection and exposure that it brings, it’s easier than ever to find new works of music.
But that also means there’s more mediocrity to wade through, says Wismath.
“There’s a lot of new stuff being written, and it becomes harder to find those valuable gems. This is one of those gems. This composer knows what he’s doing, and he’s created his own language.”
“It’s truly original, while at the same time telling a story that’s ageless.”
Despite being based on the passion story, The Little Match Girl Passion doesn’t specifically reference Jesus. Rather, it draws upon the same themes of innocence and suffering and uses them to touch the audience.
“This piece, every time gets me. It’s incredibly moving,” says Wismath. “For someone who is religious or non-religious, it doesn’t make a difference.”
“This is a very rarely performed work because of its level of difficulty,” he adds. “It’s a unique opportunity.”
The performance runs Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Sylvan United Church in Mill Bay; Sunday at 3 p.m. at St. Mary’s Anglican Church, 1973 Cultra Avenue in Saanichton; and Monday at 3 p.m. at the Lutheran Church of the Cross in Victoria.
Performances are by donation, and doors open 30 minutes before the concerts. For more information, visit voxhumanachoir.ca/LMGP.html.