Despite millennia of religious, scientific and philosophical debate, death remains life’s greatest mystery. The Spire Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Ben A. Spalding, presented two masterful meditations on this mystery Saturday at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Overland Park.
David Lang was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music for “the little match girl passion,” based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. Originally for four singers (who also play select percussion), Spire performed the chamber choir version.
The work is comprised of stark harmonies and melodic fragments tightly constructed into a gorgeous monument of suffering, abandonment, and release of life’s burden. Serving as narrative and commentary, Lang’s use of text both elevates and obscures the language, eliding and truncating phrases, layering, echoing words, emphasizing individual syllables and bringing singular consonants to prominence—the repetition of the opening sound of “come” brings to mind the distant patter of snow on a quiet night.
This exceptional sonic painting continued with layered rhythms creating urgency and a mesmerizing elongation of phrases. Spiraling fragments of conflicting pitches rose like sparks of fire, or as a soul ascending. The sudden quiet suspended time.
In the last segment, the glockenspiel and crotales reframed the primary material as accompaniment to the final plea of “rest soft.” In the resonant space of St. Michael’s the residual ringing built a visceral tension that was both angelic and defiant, never explicit, but clear nonetheless: “Let the little children come to me.”
“the little match girl passion” ends meditatively, gently, best appreciated in quiet contemplation (though the audience offered heartfelt and deserved applause for this performance), reflecting on those who suffer unnecessarily and without respite.
For the performance of Gabriel Fauré’s “Requiem” Spire collaborated with Störling Dance Theater. With the chorus and chamber orchestra in the choral loft, dancers gave an expressive performance of spiritually driven choreography by Mona Störling-Enna.
Entering under a long black veil, the dancers emoted grief with furrowed brows, flexed, tense movements, fighting against the fabric. Constrained, too, by the limited area and unfavorable tile flooring, they whirled and swayed and embraced each other in sorrow and comfort. With clasped hands, they turned to the image of Christ behind the dais, knelt and bowed, forming the tulle into a cross-shape, struggling with that burden.
Dancers in white appeared as emblems of hope, smiling, a trio dancing first to the violin solo, and then a fine soloist performing prayerfully to “Pie Jesu.”
The musicians gave a refined performance with carefully honed dramatic moments, dark timbres swelling in effective crescendos and a lush, cohesive choral sound, with lovely solos from baritone Paul Max Tipton and soprano Nacole Palmer.
The performance was a gentle, stoic mix of sorrow and beauty, and commended with the audience’s standing ovation.