In Pursuit of the Sublime

Classic Arts Features   In Pursuit of the Sublime
Celebrating its fifth year, LincolnCenter's White Light Festivalseems to have hit a beautiful nerve.

Audiences worldwide have responded to the Festival's emphasis on those ephemeral, sometimes mysterious, vital feelings generated when great artists are given the space to reach for the ineffable. Festival founder and Lincoln Center's Ehrenkranz Artistic Jane Moss is keenly aware of the human desire for these sublime experiences, but knows that contemporary listeners are often seduced by technology in ways that make it impossible to focus on what great artists are telling us. She adds, "Where does morality come from, or compassion? Only when we are free from life's distractions can we begin to focus on our interior lives."

Vocal music has long been associated with some of humankind's loftier spiritual planes, and this year the Festival is rich with diverse singers and choirs, some in New York's more unconventional venues. A few dozen blocks north of Lincoln Center lies Union Theological Seminary, where Australia's groundbreaking circus troupe, Circa, along with the glorious sounds of the British early music choir I Fagiolini, will present How Like an Angel in the Seminary's chapel. Works by Tallis, Josquin and Victoria will nudge up against South African church music and a new piece by Adrian Williams.

Just a stroll from the Seminary is Synod House on the grounds of Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where tenor Ian Bostridge will reprise his haunting 2013 portrayal of Madwoman in Britten's Curlew River. When asked to comment on what "white light" means in his work, Bostridge replied, "to bring clarity through the heat of performance, which generates light. The performance should burn brightly." This oratorio of this illuminating production was inspired by Japanese Noh theater and it is directed by Netia Jones, making her New York debut.

In the resplendent acoustics of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, conductor Simon Halsey leads the Rundfunkchor Berlin in Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil ("Vespers"). And in the intimate Clark Studio Theater, Brooklyn's Grammy-winning Roomful of Teeth, an innovative vocal octet, will feature a Lincoln Center commission and New York premiere by indie folk artist Sam Amidon, plus recent works by Rinde Eckert and the group's director, Brad Wells. This concert also gives listeners another chance to hear Caroline Shaw's Pulitzer Prize winning Partita for 8 Voices.

Cantus, acclaimed as "the premier men's vocal ensemble in the United States," will present choral masterpieces from around the world spanning decades: from Perotinus to Sibelius and Janšcˇek. Minneapolis composer Edie Hill wrote A Sound Like This specifically for the group, using texts by 15th-century Indian composer Kabir. Eastern poetry from both India and Pakistan inform Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali, created by Pakistani vocalists Rizwan and Muazzam (nephews of the legendary vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), who will give listeners the opportunity to experience wajad, a trance-like state considered to be the height of spiritual ecstasy in Sufism. And still more poetry: Dadaistic works by 20th-century Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (from his 1912 book Kl‹nges): is the inspiration for Chalk and Soot, created by choreographer John Heginbotham and composer Colin Jacobsen. Dance Heginbotham and Brooklyn Rider, the acclaimed new music string quartet, will be joined by vocalist Carla Kihlstedt in a neo-absurdist take using figures from Kandinsky's past.

Baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Markus Hinterh‹user will offer their interpretation of Schubert's iconic Winterreise, in an unusual environment created by South African artist William Kentridge (whose 2010 production of Shostakovich's The Nose was a hit at the Metropolitan Opera). Kentridge has created 24 animated films to accompany Schubert's 24 songs.

Gospel music is uniquely American, and for six decades, Mavis Staples has been one of that genre's superstars. Working with producer Jeff Tweedy, she has created One True Vine. Starting on a note of doubt, a dramatic transformation occurs from darkness into light, as the title song closes the show on a note of salvation and optimism.

Instrumental fans will be eager to hear two of the world's most celebrated orchestras, the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. The former, led by Sir Simon Rattle, will give the United States premiere of Peter Sellars's groundbreaking production of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, staged in the awe-inducing space of Park Avenue Armory. The Leipzig ensemble will present more Bach, followed by Bruckner's majestic Seventh Symphony.

One of the late 20th-century's most admired films is Krzysztof KiesÔälowski's The Decalogue (1989), inspired by the Ten Commandments. Dealing with moral, ethical, and philosophical issues, the ten-part series of films will be screened over the course of a single weekend, to allow audiences to become immersed in the director's vision. This masterwork: rarely shown outside Europe: has been called "the best dramatic work ever done specifically for television."

Sometimes the simplest means can produce the most transcendent results. Basil Twist, whose Symphonie Fantastique enchanted listeners with choreographed abstract shapes in a tank of water, will return with his take on three Stravinsky works, including The Rite of Spring, with conductor Jayce Ogren and the Orchestra of St. Luke's. In our decidedly high-tech world, Twist thinks audiences may take magic and mystery for granted, and by implication, may not give themselves proper time or space to experience them. "Audiences are more and more thirsty for, and fulfilled by, the very simple and profound mystery of the line between the animate and the inanimate. As humble as puppetry is, for an audience it is actually an existential experience that is written in wonder."

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