David Lang: The Little Match Girl Passion

David Lang: The little Match Girl Passion (Grammy vinder)
Lawson Taitte, The Dallas Morning News
Tirsdag, 18. maj

The Pulitzer Prize for music, perhaps the least publicized of the Pulitzer awards, has sometimes excited the most heated controversies. Frequently criticized for being too academic, it has taken a sharp, almost disorienting, turn over the last three years.

A couple of recent CDs allow us to hear the about-face for ourselves. Bridge has released the 2006 winner, Yehudi Wyner's Chiavi in Mano, while Harmonia Mundi has given us the 2008 laureate, David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion.

Because the prize was traditionally reserved for classical composers, people complained it didn't represent the full spectrum of American music. Duke Ellington was nominated in 1965 but denied the prize. Wynton Marsalis did take home the 1997 Pulitzer for Blood on the Fields. But that grandiose oratorio is a concert work, and Marsalis had always straddled the line between classical and jazz.

Also, the music Pulitzer seldom honored the big, career-changing, historically sweeping achievements that the comparable awards for drama and fiction often cited. Many controversial but undeniably important figures – as diverse as John Cage, Lou Harrison, Leonard Bernstein, Frederic Rzewski and Philip Glass – have been snubbed. People had begun to dismiss the award as something that a committee of music professors awarded to other, alternately stuffy or abstruse, music professors.

That all changed when the 2007 award went to Ornette Coleman's Sound Grammar. This was a live recording of a jazz performance, made in Italy, of all places. The great Texas-born saxophone player is certainly one of jazz's giants, always controversial, and this first recording in nearly a decade has an unearthly beauty about it. But the performance, caught when the artist was already in his late '70s, didn't break new ground.

The two subsequent Pulitzers seem almost as self-consciously trendy. They went to downtown New York musicians of the sort we used to call minimalists – albeit dressed in their uptown best, since the winning works were both commissioned by Carnegie Hall. So far, only snatches of the 2009 winner, Steve Reich's Double Sextet, can be sampled online. Since Reich has generally been one of the most commercially successful American classical musicians, we can probably count on a commercial release relatively soon.

You can actually hear the whole of The Little Match Girl Passion on the Carnegie Hall Web site, but the Harmonia Mundi release is more polished and more atmospheric. Lang, one of the founders of the Bang on a Can concerts, has generally veered between industrial mayhem and an almost fey delicacy in his music. The Passion, modeled after Bach's biggest work, is delicate but mournful, even heartbreaking.

It retells the Hans Christian Andersen tale, using the four singers of Paul Hillier's Theatre of Voices, who play their own gently tintinnabulating percussion instruments. Lang encloses the story in an introduction and final lament and interrupts the narrative flow with movements that use different textures to comment on the story – all in homage to Bach. The parallels between the death of Christ and that of the poor, freezing little girl are made as specific as possible.

The voices ascend and descend on the notes of simple chords. The sounds owe a lot to Arvo Part – though more to his early instrumental works than to his choral, religious ones.

The Lang piece is worlds away from Wyner's piano concerto, Chiavi in Mano. Like Coleman, Wyner was in his late 70s when he composed his prizewinner, but the sound of the piece is actually fresher, lighter than Wyner's other works on the Bridge disc, all written in the 1990s. Robert Spano conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra – Wyner taught at Harvard for many years – and sometime early-music specialist Robert Levin plays the piano.

After a portentous beginning, chattering woodwind triplets perk up in almost Mendelssohnian fashion. The piece ends in a populist, dancelike mood. Chiavi in Mano is actually quite lovely, but it doesn't carry the weight of obvious importance that a Pulitzer Prize might lead one to expect.

So it's a piece by a professor, singled out by other professors? Maybe so. But here's a nice little note of irony. That rabid, rabble-rousing downtowner Lang picked up a new gig last year: He joined the composition faculty at Yale University.

These days, even the renegade classical composers have to be professors to make a living, it would seem.David Lang