Due to a fortunate lack of time, I'll need to cover both of this weekend's White Light Festival events in a single post. "Fortunate" because, while residing in completely different worlds - one indie pop, one classical - these two concerts, presented within 24 hours of each other, were shown to have far more in common than might otherwise be expected. Which in great measure is what this festival is all about - and why I'm so personally drawn to it.
On Saturday night, Antony and the Johnsons made their Lincoln Center debut, performing with the Orchestra of St. Luke's in front of a capacity crowd at Alice Tully Hall. Many audience members were dressed in costume for Halloween, adding to the festive, slightly freakshow atmosphere.
Antony himself took the stage to rockstar applause, wearing a flowing black chiffon garment and a necklace made of three large shells. Shrouded in near-darkness, he was an imposing presence, like some mysterious, androgynous priest of the underworld. As the orchestra tuned, the hall was filled with all the breathless anticipation of a Met debut, situated as we were less than two blocks from the revered house itself. (Indeed, Antony is no stranger to such grandiose venues, having performed two sold-out concerts at the Sydney Opera House last February.)
And then, he began to sing. In all my years of seeing shows, I've never heard anything like Antony's voice: a 4-octave range combined with nonstop tremolo, couched in a hushed, heartfelt delivery that sounded like Billie crossed with Babs, spiked with a healthy dose of Tom Jones. With the swell of the orchestra rising and falling behind him (playing pristine, penetrating arrangements by Nico and others), Antony often seemed to be lost in rapture: eyes skyward, arms outstretched in grand gesture.
Antony harbors a flair for the dramatic, cultivated during his years doing drag at places like like the old Pyramid Bar on Avenue A. During "I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy," he halted the performance after the first verse, holding the audience completely transfixed for what felt like a full minute before finally releasing us. If Antony had any hesitation whatsoever about making the transition from cabaret lounge to concert stage, he didn't betray it here.
Many of Antony's lyrics have a dark, apocalyptic tone, borne out of his despair over the turn the world has taken towards mass consumption, combined with his own struggle for acceptance in a society that stubbornly clings to convention. (Antony identifies himself as transgender.) Take the intensely morose "Another World", from 2008's The Crying Light:
I need another place
Will there be peace
I need another world
This one’s nearly gone
I’m gonna miss the birds
Singing all their songs
I’m gonna miss the wind
Been kissing me so long
Leading the Orchestra of St. Luke's was Rob Moose, who has what must be the most eclectic résumé of any active conductor: he's the guitarist/violinist in My Brightest Diamond, has played viola with Jay-Z, and has arranged orchestral music for everyone from Sufjan Stevens to The National. Also joining the orchestra was pianist Thomas Bartlett, better known as Doveman; Antony himself played piano on two songs, including a stirring encore of "Hope There's Someone" from 2005's Mercury Prize-winning I Am a Bird Now.
An unfortunate distraction was the projection of Chiaki Nagano's 1973 film Mr. O's Book of the Dead, whose connection to the music was the tenuous at best. (The film's star, butoh pioneer Kazuo Ohno, graced the cover of The Crying Light.) Antony, for his part, seemed taken with it, repeatedly staring at the pale, half-naked bodies on the screen. If his intention was to draw attention away from himself, he at least partly succeeded.
Unfortunately, this was Antony's only North American performance of the year, which made the chance to hear this startling and unique instrument feel like even more of a privilege than it would have been otherwise. Noone has done it before quite like this; it is doubtful will we ever hear his like again.
By Sunday afternoon, I was back at Lincoln Center to hear Brahms' German Requiem at Avery Fisher Hall. I've long been familiar with this somber-yet-uplifting masterpiece for chorus and orchestra, having heard it on numerous occasions, including a 2003 Tanglewood concert featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with the Boston Symphony that rolled over the manicured Berkshire lawn like an earthquake.
This performance featured the slightly-less overpowering Dresden Staatskapelle and Westminster Choir, led by one-time Simon Rattle protégé Daniel Harding. The Staatskapelle is an orchestra in the great German tradition, founded in 1548 and the favored ensemble of everyone from Richard Wagner to Richard Strauss. I've had the good fortune to see them on several occasions - most recently in Brussels - and have always been blown away by their precise, impassioned playing.
Performing with the Staatskapelle were fellow Germans Christiane Kang (soprano) and baritone Matthias Goerne, who seemed just as brooding and intense as he was when I last saw him two years ago with Kurt Masur and the NY Phil: a feral Beast to Kang's delicate Beauty.
For the German Requiem, Brahms replaced the standard Latin mass for the dead with text from Luther's German bible, focusing on passages that are meant to comfort the living, rather than honor the dead:
Blessed are they that mourn:
for they shall be comforted.
They that sow in tears
shall reap in joy.
Strangely, the presenters chose not to reprint the text in the program booklets, projecting it instead as supertitles above the stage. Nor did they offer any sort of attempt to align this performance with the rest of the White Light Festival, other than an implicit reference to the festival's overall theme of Spirituality.
However, there were - if you looked hard enough - direct parallels with Antony's songs from the night before, many of which are are centered around similar themes of Comfort and Release. Take, for example, this passage from the 5th section of the Requiem:
Behold with your eyes, how that I have
but little labor,
and have gotten unto me much rest. (Sirach 51:35)
which seems to respond directly to Antony's plea in "Hope There's Someone":
There's a ghost on the horizon
When I go to bed
How can I fall asleep at night
How will I rest my head?
Or compare the 2nd section of the Requiem:
They shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:10)
to "The Crying Light":
The secret grows
Or, better still, you could ignore the words altogether and simply fall prey to the music, which was equally transporting and transcendent on both occasions. Maybe they were right to leave the words out of the program after all.(More pics on Flickr.)