The final week of the 2013 White Light Festival brought three extraordinary events to Lincoln Center that served to remind concertgoers of the remarkable breadth and eye-popping wonder of this welcome—and hopefully permanent—addition to the New York concert calendar. As Festival Director Jane Moss explained to me during one of the festival's White Light Lounges, these events are not intended to be overtly spiritual so much as "open up rooms inside of you."
Last Saturday at Alice Tully Hall, Britain's Tallis Scholars—who appeared during the first White Light Festival in 2010 and are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year—returned with a program centered around British masters from the Tudor era, music which they sing better than anyone. The bulk of the concert consisted of selections from John Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, written sometime in the early 16th century. The Scholars, 12 SATB singers positioned in a semicircle, sang as a seamless whole, with a tone so pure it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. By the end of the "Agnus Dei," the Scholars were running on all cylinders, soaring in sonic majesty both overwhelming and sublime.
As is their standard practice, the Scholars made room on the program for two living composers. Arvo Pärt's ". . . which was the son of . . . " was an oddity for a composer known for his ethereal, drone-like melodies, setting the endless genealogical listing from the opening of Luke to a tune that sounded like a Southern spiritual. Far more engaging was Nico Muhly's Recordare, Domine, commissioned earlier this year by the Scholars. Using a text from Lamentations, the music starts with strange, eerie dissonances with drones underneath, creating an uncomfortable tension. At the final line ("Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord thy God"), everything comes together in glorious consonance. Nico, having just completed the run of Two Boys, stood at his seat to receive the justifiably ecstatic ovation. I doubt this applause brought him any less satisfaction than his seven curtain calls at the Met over the past few weeks. Maybe more.
As an encore, the Scholars performed John Tavener's The Lord's Prayer as a tribute to the esteemed British composer, who passed away earlier in the week. Director Peter Phillips spoke with warmth about his friend, who wrote much music for the Scholars over the years and was one of Britain's leading musical lights at the turn of the 21st century. (Nico, in a tribute he wrote for The Guardian, called Tavener's music "ecclesiastical architecture at its best and most sublime.") The Scholars sang it with simple beauty: Never have I heard the line "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done" invested with more pathos.
At Pittsburgh's Mattress Factory Art Museum, there is an installation by James Turrell called Pleiades, in which the viewer walks down a long darkened corridor until you find yourself in a large open space so dark you can't see your hand in front of your face. After some time, your eyes begin to adjust, and you can just barely make out a faint glow in the distance—more a presence than firm object. Paradoxically, the harder you look, the smaller and more faint it becomes.
There wasn't even a faint glow in the Clark Studio Theater last Tuesday, where I heard the JACK Quartet perform Georg Friedrich Haas' Third String Quartet, in which Haas dictates that the performance space be made completely dark. Haas, a native of Austria who just this year moved to New York to join the faculty at Columbia University, has explored darkness in several other compositions—such as 2002's in vain, in which 24 musicians perform while the house lights dim and brighten—but, the Third Quartet is by far the most extreme.
In order to manage the unique challenges of performing in the dark for well over an hour (the performance feels far shorter), Haas provides his players with a set of detailed instructions that indicate everything from tempo to timbre, but stops short of providing a notated score. JACK, which has performed this quartet more than 20 times around the world, has mastered its delicate interplay, knowing immediately when to expand on an idea that's working, and when to abandon one that isn't. Positioned outside the audience at the far corners of the room, you could hear the music being passed from player to player, sometimes right over your head.
The music is somber and starkly modern, with lots of scraping and microtonality, particularly in its overtones. At first, it struck me that Haas' quartet was the next logical evolution of the string quartet—Beethoven's 17th quartet, if you will. In fact, Haas has written what amounts to a Tenebrae, the ancient Holy Week service in which motets and hymns are sung while candles are extinguished one by one, ending with the church in total darkness. Indeed, the Third Quartet is subtitled "In iij. Noct.," a reference to the Third Nocturne of Tenebrae, and includes a quotation from Carlo Gesualdo's 16th century Tenebrae service.
And yet, when asked after the concert how he felt this music fit in with the White Light Festival's overarching themes of spirituality, Haas didn't reference any specific religious meaning, but instead spoke about the responsibility art in a world that has become predominantly secular. "Art is the only place we have left where we can combine rational structures with metaphysical ideals," he said. "Which is why we need art, more than ever."
The White Light Festival wrapped up this past weekend with three performances of Mark Morris' evening-length dance, L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, set to the oratorio by Handel. The dance, which Morris choreographed while his company was in residence at La Monnaie in Brussels in the late '80s, is generally regarded as a modern masterpiece, with its colorful costumes, set designs, and dances that evoke the unbridled joy of a summer pageant. Seeing it last Thursday night at the David Koch NY State Theater, it was as bright and sunny as Haas' Third Quartet was dark and dreary.
Often, the music that accompanies modern dance is an afterthought, assuming it's even performed live. Here, the music was far better than it needed to be, thanks largely to Handel expert Nicholas McGegan's presence in the pit and a cast of top-notch singers (sopranos Dominique Labelle and Yulia Van Doren, tenor John McVeigh, and bass-baritone Douglas Williams) with impressive credentials in both opera and concert music. Credit Morris as well, who has insisted on live music for all MMDG performances since 1996 and often conducts his own resident ensemble himself. If nothing else, Morris' illumination of this otherwise-forgotten oratorio should give listeners all the reason they need to explore Handel's music well beyond the upcoming onslaught of Messiahs.
Kudos to Jane and everyone at Lincoln Center for another White Light overflowing with opportunities for contemplation and inspiration. Can't wait to see what's in store for Edition Five next year. (More pics of JACK Quartet here; Mark Morris Dance Group here.)