We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, December 9, 2023


Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble at The Crypt

We give Andrew Ousley a great deal of credit for creating unusual and compelling evenings in his series Death of Classical. We cannot, however, give him credit for the boiler breakdown at The Church of the Intercession as we sat shivering in The Crypt. We will say this. The atmosphere added to our sympathy for "The Little Match Girl", who freezes to death on the street on the last night of the year whilst having visions of warmth and food.  According to the fairy tale recorded by the 19th c. Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, after envisioning her dear departed grandmother, she joins her in heaven.

Composer David Lang was given the commission for this piece by the National Chamber Choir of Ireland and the work premiered in 2008. It was written for four voices, percussion, and chamber choir. The version we saw last night omitted the choir; the four voices we heard brought the text to vivid life and the accompanying percussion went a long way toward amplifying the mood.

Mr. Lang followed the model of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion with the Andersen text interrupted by outpourings of grief, guilt, remorse, repentance, and cries for mercy. Most of these interpolations seemed to be  the voice of a mother who has wronged her daughter. We fantasized that perhaps it was the mother of the little girl sent out to sell matches on a cold wintry night. Personally, we would have been just as moved if the composer had simply  set the fairy tale. But Mr. Lang had something more spiritual in mind and evidently wanted to draw a connection with the Bach piece.

The story is heartbreaking and reminded us to not take our warm home and nourishing food for granted when refugees and hostages alike are suffering in the Middle East. We think of the approaching cold weather and the poor soldiers in Ukraine fighting for their freedom, as well as the Russian soldiers conscripted unwillingly. Yes, we do feel sorrow for them also and we feel sorrow for their wives, mothers, and children. The world is a cruel place for many but Andersen seems to imply that one can be hopeful nonetheless, as the little girl did when she hallucinated warmth and food and love by the light of her matches.

Now, what about the music?  Regular readers recall our distaste for contemporary music but let us mark this as an exception. This was our first time hearing the Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble and we found them to be artistic and effective.The music is tied together by a recurring motif comprising an interval of a fourth followed by just a note or two or three of an ascending scale passage. This motif not only ties the work together but amplifies the chill of the score. Rarely do we hear a work in which the vocal line so well matches the text. No, it isn't at all lyrical but it serves the work well.

This motif is established and repeated by the alto part, strongly sung by Amber Evans who also made good use of the glockenspiel. The soprano part was sung by Charlotte Mundy, who also played the sleigh bells and scraped lightly on a disc called a break drum, which was new to us.  Also new to us were the crotales, small tuned cymbals. Tenor Tomás Cruz  took the tenor part and also played the glockenspiel and tubular bells. Bass Steve Hrycelak also played the bass drum. Each percussion instrument contributed a unique sound. The harmonies were interesting and appropriately chilling in effect, with great use of the dissonant second interval.  Maestro Jeffrey Gavett succeeded in keeping everything balanced and The Crypt was filled with pungent overtones. The overall effect was hypnotic.

We have never heard anything boring or commonplace at Death of Classical  and always eagerly await the announcement of the next adventure. Now we understand that these adventures will be expanding to other cities. We hope they find an audience as appreciative as the New York audience.

© meche kroop 


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