White Light Festival to brighten New York till Nov. 19

Ensemble Basiani will play N.Y.’s White Light festival. (Photo: George Demetrashvili)

by Harry Rolnick

The great Persian poet Hafiz was once told that life enters the human body with the help of music. He replied, “That isn’t quite true. Life itself is music.”

This should be the essence of the most magical musical month in New York, the White Light Festival, from October 19 to November 19.

It happens to be the month when every concert, every night, in churches, in the Baryshnikov Arts Center and around Lincoln Center, becomes a revelation. It would be mundane to say this has a “theme.” Rather, each concert has an “essence” or, in Hafiz’s words, an “aura.”

What have we here? Well, why not “mundane”? To wit, Emanuel Ax plays Bach, Schoenberg, and in a version with tenor and soprano, Mahler’s homage to Chinese poetry, the Song of the Earth.

The grand finale is Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

In between are other virtuosi exploring their universes. The wonderful András Schiff plays two Bach programs, Joshua Bell plays Schubert and Prokofiev, and the wonderful Paul Lewis performs all Schubert.

How I would love to tell you about Les Arts Florissants singing Charpentier motets, but even as a music critic, it’s almost impossible to get a ticket. On the other hand, for a truly mystical experience, Wang Li plays a program of Jew’s harp and calabash flute. The New York Times called it “quietly spellbinding.”

My second favourite program is Ensemble Basiani, a choir from Georgia that, with the Latvian Radio Choir, performs ethereal music. And for the mystical masochists amongst us, Stockhausen’s hour-long percussion work.

The crown may be the medieval Hilliard Ensemble with visionary director Heiner Goebbels doing “I went to the House but did not enter.”

Friends are flying in from Bangkok and San Francisco … Montreal isn’t as far away.

Each program offers music, poetry and a glass of wine. Hafiz, Li Po and presumably Leonard Cohen would have loved it.

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