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SACRA / PROFANA And Choral Music For The iPod Generation

Local choral ensemble SACRA/PROFANA, who will perform

Credit: Courtesy photo

Above: Local choral ensemble SACRA/PROFANA, who will perform "The Little Match Girl Passion" Sunday, April 1 in La Jolla.

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American composer David Lang may be versed in classical tradition but his category-defying compositions are very much of the modern age.

Lang's Pulitzer Prize-winning work “The Little Match Girl Passion” fuses Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion” with the Hans Christian Andersen short story “The Little Match Girl”, a tale of a poor young girl who sells matches in the freezing cold on New Year's Eve. Unable to make sales and afraid to return home for fear that her father will beat her, she takes refuge on the street, lighting matches to stay warm while reminiscing about happier memories and her grandmother. During the night, she freezes to death.

Lang states on his website, "What drew me to 'The Little Match Girl' is that the strength of the story lies not in its plot but in the fact that all its parts—the horror and the beauty—are constantly suffused with their opposites. The girl's bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories; her poverty is always suffused with her hopefulness. There is a kind of naive equilibrium between suffering and hope." (Read his full program note.)

On Sunday, local choral ensemble SACRA / PROFANA will perform "The Little Match Girl Passion", which The New Yorker calls "one of the most original and moving scores of recent years".

Lang, who is based in New York, emailed Krishan Oberoi, artistic director of SACRA / PROFANA, to suggest that the group perform his composition. Oberoi shares, "I loved the idea of the piece before I got into the music. People have been writing musical settings for the gospel passion for years. The fact that a modern composer wanted to tell the passion story in a way that is completely re-invented and re-imagined is very daring."

And the piece fits nicely with SACRA / PROFANA's commitment to perform the works of modern, living composers as much as possible. "The work doesn’t feel like what you would expect to hear from a choir singing about the passion," says Oberoi. "It feels very much minimalistic, but at the same time there are some really heart-breaking moments in it that you don’t typically find from minimalist composers. It does draw very heavily on choral tradition while very much being a piece of its time."

Founded in 2009, SACRA / PROFANA's 24-voice ensemble—composed of young singers in their mid- to late-20s—is dedicated to promoting the choral tradition, through both contemporary and classic works. "Our singers have a strong choral background but at the same time they’re the iPod generation," says Oberoi. "They have a different way of thinking about music, they don’t see these boundaries between pop and classical music. A lot of the repertoire we do would have been called 'crossover' in previous generations but it just feels organic to me."

SACRA/PROFANA presents the San Diego premiere of David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion” this Sunday, April 1 at the Torrey Pines Christian Church in La Jolla. The performance is free.

KPBS Midday Edition speaks with Krishan Oberoi, artistic director of SACRA / PROFANA, and Mark Wischkaemper, chorus manager at SACRA / PROFANA, about composer David Lang and his award-winning composition.


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