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White Light Festival: Week 4 Recap

DSC05876After four weeks of expectedly diverse, engaging performances, Lincoln Center's White Light Festival is starting to wind down. But, not before three extraordinary events this past week, each of which truly deserve their own post. But, as T.S. Eliot once wrote: "Time and the bell have buried the day."

DSC05823Huelgas Ensemble, Fourth Universalist Church, 11/10/11 The main draw for this concert of Rennaissance choral music was a performance of Thomas Tallis' Spem in alium ("I have never had hope"): the celebrated 1560's motet that, among other things, was the inspiration for Janet Cardiff's sound installation, The 40-Part Motet, featured in last year's White Light Festival. Tallis wasn't the first to compose a choral work with 40 individual parts - that honor goes to Alessandro Striggio, whose own 40-part motet, Ecce beatam lucem was also featured on the program - but Tallis' creation is clearly superior, full of stirring consonances that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. As in Cardiff's installation, the choir sang in circular formation, with the audience seated on the perimeter. (The program also included motets by Josquin Des Prez, Giovanni Gabrielli, and Pieter Massens, among others.)

The Huelgas Ensemble, which celebrated it's 40th anniversary last year, was led by it's founder Paul Van Nevel: a squat, mustachioed Belgian who looks more like a history professor than a conductor. After the concert, I found him outside smoking a cigar, chatting gregariously with one of his singers. I introduced myself, telling him about the Cardiff installation, as well as Adrian Utley and Will Gregory's score to The Passion of Joan of Arc, which I feared Mr. Van Nevel might find incongrous, given that Joan lived around the same time as many of the composers we'd just heard. "Good music has no century," he told me, wagging his cigar.

DSC05827Olivier Latry, Alice Tully Hall, 11/11/11 As mentioned in my previous post, Latry - who has been organist at Notre Dame in Paris since 1985 - is one of the world's great performers of Olivier Messiaen's organ music. His program on Friday, played on Alice Tully's Kuhn organ, took from all periods of Messiaen's career: from Apparition de l'eglise eternelle - written when he was 23 - to Livre du Saint Sacrament, completed when he was in his 70's.

Surprisingly, I wasn't as moved by this performance as I have been by concerts of Messiaen's organ music in the past: partly due to the thinness of this particular instrument - which was really built for Bach - partly due to the distraction of having to watch Latry perform, which was a bit like peeking at the Wizard behind the curtain. Still, you could sense there was something going on in Alice Tully that went well beyond the music, something powerful and deeply spiritual.

To be sure, Messiaen's organ music is far from conventional: it's full of harsh dissonances and kooky rhythms, not to mention sustained chords held for what feels like an eternity. Clearly, it's not to everyone's taste, as evidenced by the steady stream of patrons who started walking out after "La manne et le Pain de Vie" (from Livre du Saint Sacrament) less than 20 minutes into the program. Fortunately, Latry was undeterred, gracefully rewarding those who stayed until the end with an encore of the gentle, contemplative "Priere apres la communion," also from Livre du Saint Sacrament.

During the White Light Lounge after the concert, I spoke with Jane, who was anything but discouraged by the exodus. "I can't control how people react," she said. "People are going to have their opinions one way or the other." Indeed, she seemed almost emboldened by it: word is, you can expect to hear more organ music on next year's White Light Festival.

Four-1-popup(photo: Ari Mintz for The New York Times)
Four Quartets, Clark Studio Theater, 11/12/11 The most incredible thing I experienced at the White Light Festival this week wasn't a musical performance, but a dramatic reading of T.S. Eliot's late masterpiece Four Quartets by the British actor Stephen Dillane, who performed the entire set of four epic poems from memory, in the tiny Clark Studio on the 7th floor of the Rose Building. It was a remarkable feat, like watching a great athlete complete some superhuman test of endurance. Dillane's deep, resonant voice breathed life into Eliot's visionary poems, filled with often-dark meditations on the passage of time and the many agonies of life. 

After intermission, the Miró Quartet arrived on stage to perform Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, which apparently inspired Eliot to write the Four Quartets. It was a thoughtful gesture on the part of the director, Katie Mitchell, but, suprisingly, an unsuccessful one: after listening to Dillane at close quarters for 75 minutes, Beethoven's 45-minute, often-inscrutable meditation - written at the end of his life when he was completely deaf - paled by comparison. In the end, it simply may have been too much of a good thing: not just this evening alone, but the cumulative effect of three intense White Light nights in a row. Yes, even I can get exhausted sometimes.

"Only by the form, the pattern/Can words or music reach/The stillness...Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts..." (Four Quartets, "Burnt Norton")

Four-2-articleLarge(photo: Ari Mintz forThe New York Times)