We last heard David Lang's music when San Francisco Lyric Opera staged his Little Match Girl Passion at OCD Theater. That piece has brought Lang plenty of recognition. As he described it in an interview, it's "quasi-medieval and pseudo-religious, vaguely pleasant to listen to, and a capella" and there are plenty of ensembles who would kill for a piece with those qualities. For this, he received the Pulitzer prize in 2008 and the recording got a Grammy in 2010. Last month, Lang got the Hans-Christian Andersen Prize in Denmark for his adaptation of Andersen's tale. There he ran into SF musicians who had taken the SF Lyric Opera production on the road but usually belong to the local Volti ensemble. A fitting encounter, as Volti will take part in this week-end's staging of another Lang piece, Battle Hymns.
Intimate and easy to stage, Battle Hymns is not. Like the Little Match Girl, it's mostly a capella, with percussion orchestration. There the similarity ends: Battle Hymns is huge, with 180 singers, a massive dance corp, and in the original Philadelphia production in 2009, a horse. This promises to be quite a show. Lang called it the "biggest, most hearfelt, most political, most impractical thing I've ever written." So impractical, so massive, so overwhelming that it hasn't be staged on this coast till now. It will take all the forces of Volti, the SF Choral Society, the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir and the Leah Stein Dance Company to fill up Kezar Pavilion as the piece just wouldn't fit in your typical auditorium.
David Lang, the Musical America's 2013 Composer of the Year, also founded the Bang On A Can collective twenty-six years ago, fostering avant-garde music mostly in New-York, where he now lives (he also teaches at Yale) and where we caught him on the phone last week.