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SACRA / PROFANA and Choral Music for the iPod Generation

March 28, 2012 12:58 p.m.


Krishan Oberoi, artistic director of SACRA / PROFANA.

Mark Wischkaemper, chorus manager of SACRA / PROFANA.

Related Story: SACRA / PROFANA And Choral Music For The iPod Generation


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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Among the great musical pieces that are part and parcel of the Easter season are handle's Messiah, and the powerful St. Mathew's passion by Bach. Both are coral works and accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A modern version of this tradition is about to be performed by SACRA/PROFANA, are the themes of suffering and redemption have been reimagined by David Lang in his choral piece called the little match girl passion. Joining me to tell us about the performance is Krishan Oberoi. Welcome to the show.

OBEROI: It's great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Also joining me is mark Wischkaemper, chorus manager of SACRA/PROFANA. Welcome.

WISCHKAEMPER: Thank you so much for having us.

CAVANAUGH: This is from SACRA/PROFANA recent rehearsals.

(Audio Recording Played)

CAVANAUGH: That was just a bit of the rehearsal of SACRA's practice of the upcoming production of David Lang's little match girl passion. Christian, remind us of the story of the little match girl. I remember it was tragic, but I don't remember that much else about it.

OBEROI: Yeah, are the little match girl is a story by Hanz Christian Andersen, it's a folk tale, and like most folk tales, it has elements of danger, and elements of morality in it. The little match girl is a girl who goes out on new year's eve with the intention of selling matches. And part of that is to get away from her step father who is going to beat her if she stays home. Part of it is to see if she can generate any income for her family. Of she goes out and wanders the streets on new year's eve, and she's unable to sell any matches. She doesn't want to go home, and she doesn't want to go home empty handed. So she fines a corner somewhere and begins to light the matches in an attempt to warm herself. And as she lights the matches, she has three visions. The first vision is she imagines she's sitting by a stove and warming herself over the stove. Well, are the match burns out, and that vision vanishes. Her second vision is of this glorious Christmas tree. She imagines she's sitting underneath this delirious Christmas tree. That moisture burns out, and it vanishes. Finally she lights the remaining bundle of matches, and she has a vision of her deceased grandmother. And in this vision, she says, grandmother, take me with you. I know when these matches burn out, you're going to vanish like the Christmas tree. Of so take me with it. And indeed, that's what happens. Her grandmother takes her, and they both fly up to heaven.

CAVANAUGH: And the little match girl is found dead in the snow. It's so sad!

OBEROI: It's heart-breaking, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Now, tell us about composer David Lang.

OBEROI: David Lang is a really interesting modern composer. He speaks with a voice that I think communicates very directly to both performers and audiences. I'm embarrassed to say I only recently learned of his work. He e-mailed us about a year and a half ago and suggested that we do this piece. I guess he can found SACRA/PROFANA online, and he liked the sound of the choir and thought we would be a good fit for this type of repertoire. The embarrassing part is when he e-mailed me, I didn't really know who he was. So I didn't pay as much attention to his e-mail as I should have. And later on, I learned about his work. And as I began to experience more of his music, yeah, this is something that we want to do.

CAVANAUGH: This is the piece that won him the Pulitzer prize.

OBEROI: Indeed.

CAVANAUGH: Mark, tell us more about SACRA/PROFANA.

WISCHKAEMPER: It was found body three years ago. So we're in our third season. And one of the most interesting things about the choir is that we are a young, very vibrant choir. I'm 32 and I'm one of the old guard in the group. And we do a lot of work by living composers. So we're trying to bring modern choral music to a public audience.

CAVANAUGH: What do you think about this composition when you first heard it?

WISCHKAEMPER: I was very moved. Will it is quite lovely. One of the things I thought was so interesting is I thought it was very clever the way he brought the two works together. But I also thought it was very respectful. It almost sounds gimmicky when you hear that he combined the Hans Christian Andersen story with the St. Matthew's passion. It's not gimmicky at all. It is so respectful and so delicately treated, it's really wonderful to hear.

CAVANAUGH: We have a clip of one of those instances where the two works have been brought together. This is another piece from the work, David Lang's the little match girl passion. And this is from the SACRA/PROFANA rehearsal.

(Audio Recording Played)

CAVANAUGH: In this piece, those 2 stories combine, the story of the little match girl, and the choral work, St. Matthew's passion by Bach. Tell us how that happens.

>> That's a really powerful moment. And I think an ingenious moment for the composer. The way he combines the 2 pieces there. It's the first movement of the little match girl passion. And it parallels the first movement of the St. Matthew passion. St. Matthew begins with a chorus singing come you daughters and help me lament. David Lang takes an English paraphrase of this text and applies it to the little match girl story. So the chorus is singing come, daughter, help me. And when you hear the sopranos singing help me, help me, man, it's powerful!

CAVANAUGH: That's one of the things that have been said about this work. A lot of great piece of modern music seem a little -- can one say non-emotional? A little distant. This really hits the emotions the way we think of a powerful piece of music in the past might have really done. Talk a little bit more about that, Christian.

OBEROI: I think it has to do with David Lang's sensibility as a composer. He's very respectful and very delicate in the way he treats his music. And that's a humanity in the way that he writes. He writes -- it sounds a little namby-pamby, but he writes from the heart. And you really feel that. And there's a sophistication in his writing. He's not putting out syrupy, sentimental music. It's very respectful and very direct. And emotionally raw.

CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about the singing itself. This was originally written I thought for a -- for four voices?

WISCHKAEMPER: That's correct.

CAVANAUGH: Now the chorus is using the alternative version for a choral interpretation.


CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the instruments. It's just a drum?

WISCHKAEMPER: Well, it's more than just a drum. It's written for choir and percussion. But the percussion isn't played by percussionists, it's played by the singers involved in the choir.

OBEROI: While they're singing.

WISCHKAEMPER: While they're singing. So in the movement we just heard, there's me playing the base drum while I'm singing along. And we use a bunch of different percussion instruments throughout, leading vibraphones and a glockenspiel. Tubular bells.

>> Sleigh bells.

WISCHKAEMPER: And a drum. We're professional musicians so everybody has the capability to get if there and try something new. Most of us have never gotten to bang on drums like this. It's fun.

CAVANAUGH: Does it help that there's such a rhythmic element to the singing itself?

WISCHKAEMPER: Absolutely. And he wrote the percussion parts to be able to be sung while you're playing. So I'm singing at the same time I'm hitting the base drum, I'm not having to do anything too terribly complicated.

CAVANAUGH: And where did you find your break drum?

WISCHKAEMPER: It's actually a brake drum from a car.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, interesting.


CAVANAUGH: I thought maybe that's some kind of a term I haven't heard of?

WISCHKAEMPER: No, I went to the mechanic next to my house, they handed it over, we washed it off, and we're using it in a piece.

OBEROI: We haven't figured out what to hit it with yet though.

WISCHKAEMPER: I think it's going to be a hammer at the end of the day.

CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. How do the singers prepare for a performance like this?

OBEROI: We do a normally very quick rehearsal process. It's difficult getting 24 people in the same room at the same time for extended periods of time. We do normally four or five rehearsals, in this case we've done four plus a dress rehearsal, and we get in there, and again, we're all professional, and we get the music out to everybody. We try and stay organized and on top of things. So get that out, and everybody comes in already knowing their nets. So all we're working on is little, delicate, intimate things. Trying to make sure that the quality of the sopranos is all the same at the same time, and make sure the bases aren't too loud.

OBEROI: That's always a problem.

CAVANAUGH: Would you call this a daring work?

OBEROI: I think so. There's a danger that it can come off as gimmicky when you hear this concept, the little match girl mash up with the St. Matthew passion. But it's not gimmicky. It's a daring concept. He makes it work in a way that is very compelling.

CAVANAUGH: Let's squeeze in just a little bit more of this music. This is from the end of the little match girl passion.

(Audio Recording Played)

CAVANAUGH: And that I think the lyrics in that particular piece also point out another combination that David Lang has attempted in combining these 2†pieces. And that is not just musically, not just with using some of the actual words and translating them, but with the themes of the 2 pieces:

OBEROI: Exactly. The St. Mathew's intersperses the narrative sections with reflections on what's been happening. So here we hear David Lang reflecting on the little match girl's suffering and saying I should be bound as you have been bound, what you've endured, that's what I deserve. And again that's from the St. Matthew passion. This idea of penitence.

CAVANAUGH: And do you see this, Christian, as a choral work that may live on for a new generation the way the classical ones have?

OBEROI: Well, it's always difficult to predict what's going to live on in postate. But at the very least, this is a work that speaks to the current generation very powerfully. We're seeing that certainly given this piece's reception. It speaks very powerfully and compellingly to a modern audience. So the current generation, absolutely. For future generations, that remains to be seen.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that sacreprofanna will present the San Diego premiere of David Lang's the little match girl passion, this Sunday, April†1st at the Torrey Pines Christian church in La Jolla. Thank you so much, both of you, for coming in and bringing the music and speaking with us.

OBEROI: Thank you so much for having us. It's been our pleasure.

WISCHKAEMPER: Thank you very much, Maureen.