When Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival launched in 2010, the world was emerging from a global financial crisis, the Los Angeles Lakers reigned as NBA champions, and President Barack Obama was completing his second year in office. Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Drake topped the charts. A 29-year-old Venezuelan conductor named Gustavo Dudamel had a year under his belt leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the reality TV show The Apprentice was attracting 4.5 million viewers a week.
How much has, and hasn’t, changed.
As we become even more dependent on technology, as the political climate implodes, and as the actual climate endangers the future, we turn inward to cultivate stillness, outward toward relationship and community, and engage with the transcendent, the true, and the beautiful through art.
The White Light Festival, now celebrating its tenth anniversary, has served this role of respite, reflection, and communal experience. The brainchild of Jane Moss, Lincoln Center’s Ehrenkranz Artistic Director, the festival cultivates attention to our inner lives as well as cross-cultural collaborations, honoring our shared humanity and the universal impulse to create.
”Ten years ago, we were ahead of the curve in two ways,” Moss says. “We emphasized the significance of an interior journey, and we had such a firm conviction of what art offers us. As the world continues to change dramatically, becoming more divisive and chaotic, the White Light Festival has become more meaningful than ever before.”
The 2019 White Light Festival opens on Saturday, October 19 with Sugimoto Bunraku Sonezaki Shinju: The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, told through Japanese bunraku puppet theater in a contemporary interpretation by renowned artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. Incorporating video and music, this U.S. production premiere is a bold staging of Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s classic 18th-century drama based upon actual events, and a rare opportunity to experience bunraku in New York City.
Australia’s Circa ensemble blurs the boundaries of dance, music, and circus arts in the New York premiere of En Masse, featuring live musicians performing selections from Schubert’s Winterreise and Schwanengesang, as well as works by Swedish composer Klara Lewis and a piano four hands arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Circa returns to the festival following its celebrated U.S. premiere performance of How Like an Angel five years ago.
Schumann’s Dichterliebe is at the core of Zauberland (Magic Land), a New York premiere directed by Katie Mitchell, in which the Romantic song cycle is interwoven with 16 new songs by composer Bernard Foccroulle and lyricist Martin Crimp. Beloved American soprano Julia Bullock and pianist Cédric Tiberghien star in this story of a woman from a war-torn land seeking an enchanted realm of security and peace.
The darker side of human nature is center stage in DruidShakespeare: Richard III, the Bard’s chilling classic about power, family, and ambition in a wickedly comic production from Ireland’s Druid theater company and director Garry Hynes. Aaron Monaghan, who appeared as Estragon in Druid’s exquisite Waiting for Godot in last year’s White Light Festival, has the title role.
For its anniversary year the festival welcomes back other beloved artists, including early-music interpreter Jordi Savall and his ensembles Hespèrion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya, who with international guest musicians trace the epic route of Saint Francis Xavier’s Journey to the East. Tony Award nominee John Douglas Thompson (King Lear) returns to narrate the story of the 16th-century Jesuit missionary’s travels from Portugal to Mozambique, India, Malaysia, Japan, and China.
Also returning is the rapturous Manganiyar Seduction, a musical dance of delirium performed by Sufi musicians from Northwest India, which first appeared in the White Light Festival’s inaugural 2010 season. Audiences will be invited to enter another unique sound world with Georgia’s Ensemble Basiani, a male a cappella chorus performing sacred, folk, and work songs of haunting, unearthly beauty from the Caucasus Mountains. Basiani returns after a celebrated festival debut in 2012.
Another work that explores religious devotion is Scottish composer James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater, which makes its U.S. premiere, alongside the premiere of his a cappella choral work Miserere. Like other composers over the centuries, MacMillan’s inspiration is the “stabat mater dolorosa,” the sorrowful Virgin Mary standing and witnessing the crucifixion of her son. Britten Sinfonia joins chorus The Sixteen under Harry Christophers to perform the devastatingly beautiful works that reflect MacMillan’s deep Catholic faith and Celtic heritage.
Those who attend the MacMillan concert may pair it with another Stabat Mater, this one by Pergolesi from 1736. Performed by the period-instrument ensemble Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and its choir, Stabat Mater will plumb the depths of human experience, then rise to soar with Vivaldi’s Gloria. The human voice takes center stage again in an all-Mahler recital from baritone Christian Gerhaher. Pianist Kit Armstrong presents an intimate recital of Bach’s intricate Goldberg Variations, and Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Caroline Shaw joins the Attacca Quartet for a free performance of her works in the David Rubenstein Atrium.
Soulful devotion and joyous song abound in The Abyssinian Mass by award-winning composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, which captures the African American experience through a swinging big band and gospel choir celebration originally composed to commemorate the bicentennial of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in 2008. Co-presented with Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will be joined by conductor Damien Sneed and Chorale Le Chateau.
Mortal love pulls at the musical heartstrings in Act II of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, performed in concert by the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) under Gianandrea Noseda in his first Lincoln Center appearance as NSO music director. Tenor Stephen Gould as Tristan joins soprano Christine Goerke as Isolde for one of the most rapturous duets in the repertory.
The festival closes with none other than sensational conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic making a festival debut with Bruckner’s radiant Symphony No. 4. Dudamel, now firmly ensconced as a classical music superstar, interprets the devout Catholic composer’s most popular orchestral work.
As in prior years, audiences can enrich their experiences by taking advantage of pre- and post-performance artist talks, a panel discussion on religion, and the White Light Lounges, offering complimentary wine and opportunities to mingle with the artists. The White Light Festival continues to elevate and inspire through a diversity of presentations exploring the human condition. As we enter a new decade of the unknown, may we join, engage, and find respite through art.
Ann Crews Melton is a writer based in Bismarck, North Dakota.