White Light

Every fall for the past few years, at the instigation of Artistic Director Jane Moss, Lincoln Center has put on its “White Light Festival” during October and November. The title comes from a phrase by Arvo Pärt, a famously religious Estonian composer, and the festival is meant to stress the spiritual qualities inherent in music, dance, and other kinds of performance. Even for a confirmed atheist like me, such a focus can be balm for troubled times, and this year the distraction from our anxieties (pre-election) and sorrows (post-election) seemed more essential than ever.

Of the twenty-some events offered over the course of four and a half weeks, I made it to only five, but that was enough to reap the benefits. In my case, the festival began—as all festivals should, I think—with a performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group on October 28. The four-work program, done without an intermission over the course of 70 minutes, including two works from early in Morris’s career (the 1983 Tamil Film Songs Pas de Deux and the 1984 O Rangasayee), one from the prolific middle period (Serenade, from 2003), and one brand-new work, Pure Dance Items, set to music by Terry Riley. All four dances had something to do with Morris’s focus on and interest in Indian dance and music, and each in its own way was revelatory. Serenade was charming, Tamil Film Songs was hilarious, and the new work was both structurally complicated and visually compelling, but the highlight for me was the incredible solo O Rangasayee, devised by Mark Morris for himself but this time performed by Dallas McMurray. It’s a famous work among Morris fans, because those of us who arrived after 1984 never got to see it: no one else, we thought (and apparently he thought), could perform this 20-minute masterpiece, set to Indian music and demanding unbelievable skill, energy, expressiveness, and control. McMurray, it turned out, could do it beautifully. It was if these extreme gestures and eccentric expressions of feeling had been generated not by another body and mind, but by his own—as if the past had been brought back to life again, but in a new form. Like everyone else in the audience, I watched it raptly, and it moved me beyond anything else I have seen this season.

The MMDG performance was part of a sub-festival within the White Light Festival, something called Sounds of India that was curated by Morris himself. Included in the array of offerings were a selection of concerts by Indian and American musicians, two dance performances by Indian dance troupes, several films, and a display of photographs by the Indian photographer Dayanita Singh (whose photos graced the Fall 2014 issue of The Threepenny Review). Of these, my schedule only allowed me to see the photos and the incredible November 2 performance by the all-female Nrityagram Dance Ensemble. Surupa Sen and her co-dancers were terrific in themselves—sinuous, precise, intense, and passionately expressive in their gestures, in a way that seemed to combine harem-girl sexuality with high-priestess seriousness. But beyond that, their performance gave me an insight into Morris’s own choreography that I had heretofore lacked, for the interpenetrations between his mode of dance and South India’s mode of dance have been long and long-lasting.

Between these two dance programs I had a little Western European interlude, in the form of Gianandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra‘s performance of Verdi’s Requiem. All I can say about this is that it was perfect (except for the interruption of one particularly quiet moment by an audience member’s cellphone—but we all soon got over that). Again, I sat engrossed for over an hour without intermission, this time being bombarded by choral and orchestral expressions of intense religious fervor. I let the religious part wash over me and just fell into the music, which I have never heard done so well before. It left me with a new understanding of why Simon Rattle might choose to abandon the marvelous Berlin Philharmonic for this sparkling English orchestra, and also with the conviction that whenever Gianandrea Noseda is conducting in my vicinity, I will go hear him.

And then, in the darkest days of mid-November, came two more events to brighten my life. One was William Kentridge’s puppet production of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, one of the earliest extant operas. I have seen this three-hour opera performed in the usual live-human manner, and though some of the music was great, it was otherwise a snooze. Kentridge, by shortening the production to 100 uninterrupted minutes, and by giving each of the central roles (Ulysses, Penelope, Telemachus, the three suitors, an old shepherd, assorted gods, even a character representing Human Frailty) to a nearly life-sized puppet devised and handled by members of the Handspring Puppet Company, managed to reinvigorate the piece completely. I was especially taken by Penelope—both the puppet representing her, whose still face seemed to alter in its expressions as she moved and “sang,” and the mezzo-soprano Romina Basso, who voiced Penelope’s lines and also helped manipulate the puppet. All the puppets had silent but visible human handlers (as in Bunraku), and all were tenderly cared for by their respective humans; Human Frailty, for instance, who spent the whole performance in bed (and who physically resembled an older, possibly dying Ulysses), was given breath by his handler, who tenderly moved the puppet’s ribcage up and down from beneath the covering blanket. Lighting and projections—which included moving and still images either drawn or assembled by Kentridge—helped magnify the setting to something that was never realistic but always touchingly appropriate. It was certainly the best production of Ritorno I ever hope to see.

Last in the series, both for me and for the festival as a whole, was one of Jeremy Denk’s stunning performances on the piano. The program, accurately titled Medieval to Modern, took us step-by-step from Machaut in the fourteenth century to Philip Glass and Ligeti in the twentieth, with stopovers at Byrd, Gesualdo, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and a host of others. It was strange and oddly touching to hear the Tristan and Isolde Liebestod (as transcribed by Liszt) come back from the Met performance I heard last month, just as it was weird to have Monteverdi reappearing so soon; I felt as if not only the entire history of Western music, but also my recent listening history, were being recapitulated before me. I had seen Denk do something similar at Carnegie Hall, where he linked together a series of pieces that all seemed to foreshadow or be influenced by ragtime; but this performance, if anything, was even more powerful emotionally, especially given the eloquent and pointed introduction Denk gave us beforehand. Technically, too, the concert was amazing: Denk had memorized all but one of the 23 highly varied pieces (he needed a score to help him through the Stockhausen), and to see and hear them performed this way, in unbroken sequence, was an experience I will not soon forget. At the end, as if to round out the story and return us to a prior moment of innocent happiness, Denk went back to the fifteenth century and played a lovely little piece by Binchois. It was called, appropriately enough, Triste plaisir et douleureuse joie.

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