The cantatas of Bach have always been at the heart of Emmanuel Music’s mission, but since its early days of collaboration with luminaries such as Peter Sellars and Mark Morris, the group has also made a habit of taking on projects that stretch its reach. Now, happily, that more exploratory vein in Emmanuel’s programming history has found a home in a new series of its own.
Called “Late Night at Emmanuel,” the series offers shorter one-hour presentations, at 8 and 10 p.m., food and drink are served, and, most significantly, the programming model has been decentralized with performers themselves now curating evenings of music, often in connection with another art form. In the fall, mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgove assembled a night of poetry and song (anchored by works of John Harbison and Lee Hyla) and on Friday night, the contralto Emily Marvosh curated two performances of David Lang’s “Little Match Girl Passion” conducted by Emmanuel’s artistic director Ryan Turner with newly commissioned choreography by Jessie Jeanne Stinnett and Boston Dance Theater.
Lang’s Pulitzer-prize-winning work, written in 2007, was an organic choice for Emmanuel thanks to this score’s deep links to Bach. Essentially, Lang has reimagined Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale “The Little Match Girl” — about a poor girl who freezes to death selling matches on the streets — through the theatrical template of Bach’s Passions, with the story punctuated by responses woven into the unfolding narrative. The idea, Lang has written, was to draw from Bach’s method of sweeping listeners more fully into the dramatic world of the piece by placing “markers” for the listeners’ own points of view directly within the music.
Seating was in the round on Friday night in Emmanuel’s Parish Hall, with four singers — Marvosh, soprano Margot Rood, tenor Matthew Anderson, and baritone Jesse Blumberg — grouped in the center of the room, each at a different set of percussion instruments. The dancers — Olivia Coombs, Whitney Cover, Mitzi Eppley, and Cacia LaCount — emerged from the wings each carry a glowing orb.
Unfortunately, Emmanuel did not reproduce Lang’s text for audience members, which would have significantly added to the experience. Nonetheless, under Turner’s direction, and with the quartet’s elegant pure-voiced singing, Lang’s score emerged as a work of chilling beauty, written in a distinctive postminimalist style with overlapping vocal lines, incantatory rhythms, and spare percussion.
Cumulatively, this music speaks with an austere eloquence that somehow lifts the tragic story onto the plane of myth. And that mythic dimension was well-served by the choreography, largely abstract but also acutely attuned to the resonances of text and music. The dancers often encircled the singers or, in one visually poetic scene, processed slowly past the musicians while swaying and, one by one, falling away.
All told, this was an auspicious way to cap the first season of this new series. Organizers say Late Night will be back next year. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they do next.
With Boston Dance Theater
At: Emmanuel Church, Friday nightJeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.