Worshipping at the Church of Lincoln Center: White Light Fest Premieres ‘Curlew River’

Benjamin Britten delivers a moving performance for all denominations.

Curlew River, and worshipping at the church of Lincoln Center
Curlew River, and worshipping at the church of Lincoln Center

In Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River, a mother driven mad by the disappearance of her son learns the truth of his death from the ferryman who takes her to her boy’s tomb. Populated with monks in cassocks and their mitred abbot, who invokes God’s grace both at the outset and 75 minutes later, when the piece ends in pious resignation, it is a frankly religious vocal drama.

This very moving work was created in 1964 by Britain’s leading 20th century composer, who called it a “parable for church performance.” And Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival staged its American premiere last week in a church, the Synod House next door to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The religious atmosphere was pervasive—incense filled the air. The ferry’s mast rose from one end of the field of action, doubling as a cross, with its horizontal yardarm.

Unabashedly focused on the spiritual, in this belligerently secular town, most of the Lincoln Center White Light Festival’s events are either explicitly religious, like this River or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; or are meant to invoke religion, like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film series The Decalogue, which is based on the biblical Ten Commandments.

For five years, the festival has presented New York audiences with performances intended to “illuminate and nourish one’s interior life,” as Jane Moss, Lincoln Center’s artistic director, put it in an interview in the festival program. For Ms. Moss, these are “significant works from the past that offer us emotional guidance in the present.” She does not seem to be speaking metaphorically. These statements follow an excerpt from Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, a book by Karen Armstrong, the acclaimed religious thinker, which outlines our capacity to “live more selflessly.”

It would be wrong to pigeonhole White Light merely as an effort to proselytize audiences into piety through the lure of spiritually explicit or implicit musical performance. But, in the end, for me, and I thought for most people in the audience, Curlew River was not only an artistic success but a spiritual experience. It moved me in a parallel way emotionally to the way I imagine the pious are directly moved by religious feeling.

Curlew River at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival 2014.
Curlew River at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival 2014.

Inspired by one of Japan’s ancient, restrained Noh plays, Curlew River takes place in the marshy Fenlands of England in medieval times. Mr. Britten built his score on a melding of the spirit of Noh music with historically appropriate Gregorian chant, enhanced with a small orchestra—chamber organ, harp, viola, flute/piccolo, horn percussion and bass—and a modern idiom of labile pitch and sonority that matched the agony of the Mother’s lamentation.

In that role, the tenor Ian Bostridge, the premiere singing exponent of Mr. Britten’s music in our time, filled the hall with anguish. Mr. Britten’s companion, Peter Pears, was the first Mad Woman and also wore a long plain garment not much different from the monk’s cassocks. The rationale for casting a man as the Mother was that both Noh and the medieval Mystery Plays to which Curlew River harks back, were all-male performances. The sober costume Mr. Bostridge wore eliminated any possibility of cross-dressing camp and his utterly persuasive, large-voiced grieving turned the small audience, squeezed into thin hard rows of misericordial wooden seats facing each other across the long rectangular open “set,” into a community of mourners.

The set itself was an equal participant in the event.  It began as a plain white platform, but quickly displayed a pebbled riverbank and then other backdrops (underdrops?) for the unfolding tale. The director, Netia Jones, a video artist, had added this monochromatic visual surround, which included shadow images on the white cloth or sail that hung from the join of the mast and its yardarm.

Mr. Britten’s spare music was also an actor in the drama. Mournful solos paired with the singers. And during the crossing of the Curlew, an undulating duet of flute and harp mimicked the waves of the river in an eerie obbligato.

In the Noh mode, the pace of action was glacial, but the combination of orchestra, song and visual effect, in the Synod Houses’ Gothic-revival space, all combined to make this Curlew River a very non-Wagnerian, minimalist, Christian Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art.

Whether or not White Light is opening its audiences to literal religious feeling, it has definitely struck a sympathetic chord, so to speak, with a large number of people who are filling its 12, and sometimes unusual, venues all over town.  My guess, from attending three of the events, is that many of those around me were already churchgoers without a primary commitment to classical music. The crowd filling the Park Avenue Armory for the St. Matthew Passion did not look to me like a typical classical music audience in today’s New York. Perhaps that had to do with the $300-plus tickets.

Or perhaps I should be chalking up the popularity of White Light to the first-rate artists it brings to town, and to the innovative productions it sponsors. And I would be happy if that was the explanation. Anything that brings classical music to a new public is a welcome miracle. And committed secular listeners like me can hope that these new converts, if indeed they are new, will come to feel the spiritual tug of classical music that isn’t overtly religious, Beethoven’s late quartets, as well as his Missa Solemnis, Mozart’s operas and his requiem. Worshipping at the Church of Lincoln Center: White Light Fest Premieres ‘Curlew River’