To mark Good Friday, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project brought together two contemporary Passion settings: David Lang's "The Little Match Girl Passion" and Arvo Pärt's "Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem."
It did not look much like a BMOP concert – only a few instrumentalists were present. But it was an appropriately grave lineup for the darkest day of the Christian calendar.
Lang won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music for "The Little Match Girl Passion," which takes Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Little Match Girl" and substitutes it for the traditional Christian narrative. Andersen's tale – of a little girl who freezes to death on the street on New Year's Eve after failing to sell any matches to earn money for her family — is interwoven with texts by Picander (the librettist of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion"), and the Gospel of Matthew itself.
The only performers are four singers, each also playing percussion instruments.
The power of the piece derives from the way it telescopes the journey from despair to transfiguration into music of hypnotic purity and beauty.
Like Bach's Passion settings, Lang alternates between narrative sections — set in a declamatory, impetuous style — and commentary on the story, where the music takes on an aura of unearthly poignancy. Here is a universal story told with heartbreaking tenderness.
The singers — soprano Shari Wilson, mezzo-soprano Mary Gerbi, tenor Michael Barrett, bass Brian Church, each discreetly amplified — had their tentative moments but sounded remarkably confident in a piece of unusual challenges. Andrew Clark, music director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, conducted.
Pärt"s "Passio" (1982) dispenses with commentary altogether and devotes itself solely to the Passion story in the Gospel of John. The Evangelist's part is taken by a quartet of voices, with solo singers for Jesus and Pilate and the chorus representing everyone else.
Two each of winds, strings, and organs make up the instrumental ensemble.
Pärt's style has been called "holy minimalism," and it fits this piece more than most, leaning on recurring rhythmic patterns and an unyielding sameness of color and tempo.
The narrative unfolds at its own meditative pace, and while the music contains wonderful detail, there is so little to mark the story's events — Christ's taking, Peter's denial, even the Crucifixion itself — that any drama is drained from the story. The final chorus verges off into brand new harmonic territory, an unexpectedly beautiful sequence of chords. It's a powerful ending, but getting there is a slog.
The solo quartet has the most to do, and soprano Margot Rood, tenor Lawrence Jones, countertenor Martin Near, and bass Paul Guttry did heroically. Bass Sumner Thompson was a solid if monochromatic Jesus, and Matthew Anderson was a more colorful Pilate. The Collegium's heartfelt choral singing gave the piece most of its color and emotional drama.