Preview: White Light Festival 2016
Louis Andriessen's "Anaïs Nin" and "Odysseus' Women" at National Sawdust

White Light Festival: Human Requiem at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine

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When I arrived at the Synod House of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine last night, the first thing I encountered was a long line at the door. A really long line. Reason: everyone attending that evening's performance of human requiem, which opens the 7th edition of the White Light Festival this week, had to check their bag before entering the space. 

Once inside the intimate, gothic hall, I was additionally asked to remove my shoes. There was no program, no seating, no real stage, save for an abbreviated altar at the far end. (The Synod House was also the site of 2014's Curlew River, where the audience sat on risers on either side of the nave.) The 200 or so people in attendance awkwardly milled about, wondering just when and where the performance was going to take place. 

Suddenly, the lights went down, and the music - Brahms' piano four hands version of his German Requiem - emerged from all sides. Singers, dressed inconspicuously in street clothes, began to move slowly through the space, laying their hands on audience members as they passed. Soon, it became apparent that the 70-odd singers - all members of the Berlin Radio Choir - had committed the entire 70 minute score to memory. 

FullSizeRenderhuman requiem is the latest in an impressive run of out-of-the-box choral performances from conductor Simon Halsey, who also led the Berlin Radio Choir in 2014's extraordinary production of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Park Avenue Armory. More recently, Simon led this past summer's world premiere of David Lang's the public domain, where 1,000 singers moved in and around the audience gathered on Lincoln Center Plaza. The common thread among all of these performances was the removal of the choir from their traditional risers and introducing choreographed movements that serve to illuminate the text.

In the case of human requiem, the task went to German director Jochen Sandig, who first staged it in Berlin in 2012 and has since brought it everywhere from Athens to Hong Kong. Each of the seven sections had it's own unique mise en scène: the dark, powerful second section ("For all flesh is as grass") was marked by a funeral procession; the turbulent sixth section ("For here we have no continuing city") featured a fierce struggle among the singers eventually broken up by a group of children representing the next generation. And, I don't think I'll ever forget the image of 20-odd choirsters swinging back and forth on rope swings during the pastoral fourth section ("How amiable are thy tabernacles.")

IMG_5241But, what truly made human requiem a transporting experience was the sheer quality of the music. Whether they were standing next to you or gathered en masse on the other side of the hall, the members of the Berlin Radio Choir sang with soaring clarity and conviction, demonstrating their clear command of the score. The same could also be said of the two soloists, baritone Konrad Jarnot and especially soprano Marlis Petersen, who was radiant and maternal in the fifth section ("And ye now therefore have sorrow; But I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice.") The two pianists, Angela Gassenhuber and Philip Mayers, provided just the right amount of musical grounding without overpowering the singers. Indeed: after having attended a dozen or so performances of the more familiar orchestral version of this work, hearing it with only piano four hands was a revelation, revealing the raw, naked emotion of the text (even it it was in German).

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During curtain calls, I saw that several audience members had been moved to tears by the experience. I was also happy to spot David Lang who, despite of his own significant accomplishments in the field of choral writing, seemed just as moved as the rest of us at this new way of engaging with Brahms' 150 year-old masterpiece. Who knows what might have been going through his head: maybe after writing a work for 1,000 singers, David will find it's time to do something a bit smaller in scale.

There is one final performance of human requiem tonight at the Synod House at 7:30. Tickets, which are extremely limited, were still available at press time on the White Light Festival website. If you can make it, I can promise you'll have one of the most moving musical experiences of your life. If you really need to, you can read all about the debate tomorrow.  IMG_5260
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