Reflecting the Times
Each year the White Light Festival presents an array of programs that illustrates the power of the performing arts to illuminate our inner selves and our connections to each other. Ehrenkranz Artistic Director Jane Moss talks to Karissa Krenz about 2017's highlights, and discusses why the festival continues to resonate so powerfully with both artists and audiences.
Karissa Krenz: The White Light Festival looks a little different this year, as it features the multipart special focus The Psalms Experience. Could you talk a bit about that?
Jane Moss: The Psalms Experience is a significant and unusual part of this year's White Light Festival. It presents settings of all 150 psalms, by 150 different composers, in 12 concerts, sung by four major international choirs in four different venues across New York City. It seems an especially apt subject right now because the Psalms represent comfort, nourishment, and hope during uncertain and challenging times—and no one would characterize our current era as normal and predictable.
The Psalms are an exceptional literary and spiritual resource for both the secular and religious reader. Though they were written within an expressly Jewish context as part of the Hebrew Bible, and integrated into later Christian traditions, their subject matter spans the entire range of human emotion: hope, gratitude, love, abandonment, frustration, despair, rage, vengeance, and so forth. One should remember that the [Book of] Psalms is the only book in the Bible where humans are speaking to God, rather than the other way around, with our litany of complaints, expectations, and hope. The humanity latent in the Psalms is further amplified by their poetic structure and literary achievement. As a result, they have been read, absorbed, and championed by readers, artists, composers, and scholars from all walks of life with widely differing beliefs. To highlight the inherent literary nature of the Psalms, we will be giving audiences a variety of translations, including one that captures the unique cadences of the ancient Hebraic poetry, and another that seeks to evoke our desire for transcendence.
It is also remarkable what a rich source of inspiration the Psalms have offered throughout history to religious adherents, to secular seekers, and, most important, to artists. The composers represented in The Psalms Experience span more than 1,000 years of music, including a few we have commissioned, which will bring the poetry and meaning of the Psalms into our own times.
KK: Is there, as in the past, another overall focus binding this year's White Light Festival offerings together?
JM: When we started working on The Psalms Experience, it led me to think more about faith in general, and how it functions as a power in people's lives. Looking at faith seems especially important when one is living in dark times. Throughout the festival we are delving into not only religious faith, but also secular varieties, like faith in love, faith in a better future, faith in one's self, and most important for us, faith in the transformative power of art. The latter is most conspicuously evident in our closing program, Jordi Savall's The Routes of Slavery. We are also dedicating this year’s White Light Conversation to an exploration of the many different kinds of faith.
KK: The artistic exploration of faith seems especially reflected in the vocal music you've programmed this year.
JM: There is indeed a lot of extraordinary vocal artistry present in this year's festival, highlighting our commitment to vocal works and performance. Lincoln Center is the major presenter of world-class international choirs in New York City. We have also become deeply involved with amateur singing, which reveals singing's unique contribution to human empowerment and community building.
The festival opens with Monteverdi: The Birth of Opera, with John Eliot Gardiner and his famed Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists performing the composer's three surviving operas. In these particularly virtuosic hands, it's an exceptional way of hearing groundbreaking works of art that mark the beginning of opera as a form.
We're also presenting two concerts with the Swedish Radio Choir, perhaps the most acclaimed choir in the world today. It first joins the Swedish Chamber Orchestra for Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, one of the Western repertoire's great choral works, and then performs an a cappella evening of insightful, ethereal contemporary European music.
Then we have singer and composer Meredith Monk, whose creations embody the definition of transcendence in manifold ways. Her Dancing Voices features the Young People's Chorus of New York City, which is a wonderful manifestation of our commitment to developing new cadres of amateur singers.
KK: The art of the human voice is also a feature in both of this year’s dance presentations.
JM: Yes. Layla and Majnun, choreographed by Mark Morris, is a collaboration with the Silk Road Ensemble, and among musicians from numerous traditions, it features the exquisite Azerbaijani vocal duo Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova. Based on an ancient Persian story similar to Romeo and Juliet, it is somewhat of a departure for Mark. It’s a beautiful illumination of how influences from diverse cultures can inspire a remarkable singular creation. And choreographer Jessica Lang has created a production of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater featuring countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo, soprano Andriana Chuchman, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. It’s somewhat larger in scale than Jessica’s usual projects, and embodies the way dance enhances the beauty and meaning of music.
KK: What insight can you share about some of the additional programming?
JM: Conor Lovett of Gare St. Lazare Ireland returns, performing The Beckett Trilogy, a one-man show adapted from three of Samuel Beckett's novels. Conor is probably unmatched in his ability to make Beckett's prose come to life, as if you're seeing a play.
We love presenting Beckett as part of White Light, because even though he frequently explores the despair or nothingness at the center of human experience, his art is expressing the transcendence that lies within us. One tends to think of the White Light Festival as being about elevation, but it really is about the entire spectrum of human experience.
Additionally, the Emerson String Quartet performs late quartets by Beethoven and Shostakovich, offering a compelling message about how these composers, up to their dying day, were creating art that would endure for centuries beyond their lifetime.
We have keyboard programs that will also have strong resonance for White Light audiences: Steven Osborne performs Messiaen's two-hour solo piano tour-de-force Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. Messiaen was a devout Catholic whose religious convictions shaped just about everything he wrote, and this piece is undeniably a work of faith and about gazing at the divine via music. And Jenny Lin marks Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov's 80th birthday, looking at his art through the lens of his forerunners like Mozart and Chopin. We often forget that contemporary composers, unlike earlier generations, face the intimidation of a rich history of their predecessors—for example, Bach did not have Beethoven and Mozart preceding him. This program artfully contrasts the past and the present in revealing ways.
There's video artist Lynette Wallworth and organist Bernard Foccroulle's Darkness and Light, juxtaposing an array of powerful organ works with imagery inspired by nature. Having the natural world as a presence in the festival is important, too, because nature is frequently a source of enormous succor, transcendence, and uplift for people.
KK: Finally, could you tell me about the closing program, Jordi Savall's The Routes of Slavery?
JM: The Routes of Slavery focuses on the musical exchanges that emerged from the heinous practice of slavery. Jordi Savall and artists from a range of musical traditions trace the history of the African slave trade, looking at the music surrounding and evolving from the cross-fertilization of different cultures. It vividly demonstrates that art can be transformative even in the most dire and deplorable of circumstances. The power of music—and the power of song in particular—offers significant psychic salvation even under the most extreme circumstances of oppression.
KK: As a whole, the festival this year seems to illustrate how imperative the arts are.
JM: It is stunning how the world has changed so dramatically in the eight years since we started the White Light Festival. Its themes are even more powerful to people in our current unsettled times. The perspective, insights, emotional nourishment, and the sense of community that artistic expression offers are more essential than ever. And to be offered sublime creations that represent the highest level of human achievement is reassuring in a time when genuine discourse and communication is being debased daily. As always with the White Light Festival, it is a privilege to reveal the unique power of the arts to illuminate the many dimensions of the human experience—like a wondrous lamp appearing on a dark road.
Freelance editor, writer, and creative professional Karissa Krenz is the editor of the White Light Festival Playbill.