Tavener: The Veil of the Temple - USA (Concert Review - The New York Times, 2004)

No one can accuse the Lincoln Center Festival of timidity after its presentation this weekend of the British composer John Tavener's seven-hour musical vigil "The Veil of the Temple."

The performance of this self-consciously mystical work for a chorus of 120, vocal soloists, organ, brass and percussion ensembles, Tibetan horn, temple bowls and Indian harmonium, began at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday at Avery Fisher Hall and ended, with no intermissions, close to 5:30 a.m. on Sunday. A large and willing audience turned up and the vast majority stayed to the end, suggesting that people, especially the notable numbers of young people present, actively seek extreme artistic experiences, though some were probably enticed by what promised to be a genuine New York happening.

"The Veil of the Temple," which draws from both Western and Eastern Christian traditions with Hindi and Sufi chants mixed in, was given its premiere last year by the Temple Church in London. Ideally it should be performed in a cathedral with a proper pipe organ and lots of open floor space, so that audiences can repose on cushions during this predominantly ruminative work.

Lincoln Center officials tried to adapt Avery Fisher Hall but didn't go far enough. The first 14 rows of seats were removed, and the open floor covered with a carpet and strewn with small pillows. But there was space for only about 150 people.

Everyone else had to sit in regular seats. (The upper tiers, needed for the performers, were closed.) So as audience members arrived hoping to enter into a spiritual state, they wound up jostling over limited floor space and too few pillows. Well into the performance, in what may be a first for Avery Fisher Hall, one person lying on the carpet could be heard pointedly saying to another, "Please take your foot out of my face."

Still, it was impressive that so many people were willing to endure the discomfort in search of something transcendent. As the performance continued, audience members were welcome to get up, walk around and recuperate in the lobby, where the music was piped in.

Musically the work is hard to account for. How do you critique a vigil? Whole swathes of "The Veil in the Temple" are meant to be mood-inducing. As the 60-year-old Sir John serenely roamed the concert hall and corridors, he seemed perfectly gratified to see people drifting off, especially during the long stretches of static music.

And stasis is a defining quality of his works, especially this one. Sir John could not care less about appeasing the avant-garde. His musical voice is steeped in tonality, harmonically transparent, sensually appealing and emotionally direct. There is a Neo-Renaissance quality to this score, which unfolds in eight cycles and emulates an all-night Easter vigil. It would be easy to find much of this music cloying, pseudo-mystical and pretentious.

Eschewing development, the score employs sung gospel recitations and long-spun chants, as well as repetitions of sweetly consonant hymns and choral refrains, all sitting atop the almost constant drone of pedal tones in the organ.

There are some striking aspects to the music, especially a restless refrain for male choristers in which the individual parts seem to veer out of sync, and some pungent choral episodes with block parallel harmonies spiked with dissonant clusters. Still, the extreme length of the work was determined by the needs of the vigil, not by the inherent richness of the music. So unless you were enthralled by the communal experience, long stretches invited napping.

Things started to pick up about 3:30 a.m., when the music built in intensity: choristers stationed about the hall sang antiphonal exchanges; a brass ensemble took the stage; percussion players went wild on the chimes; and the organ finally turned ecstatic.

I have nothing but praise for the vocal soloists (especially the soprano Patricia Rozario) and the stalwart choristers from Temple Church in London and the Dessoff Choral Consortium (Kent Tritle, director).

The consortium, drawn from nine choruses in New York, included an endearing roster of excited, able but, by the end, sleepy-eyed boys. The accomplished and tireless conductor Stephen Layton could take breaks only during passages when solo singers recited gospels.

The ending of the vigil was worth the wait. After a celebratory final chorus, with no break for applause, a row of basses singing a jaunty Hindu chant led all the performers and the entire audience out the doors into the Lincoln Center courtyard where complementary breakfast awaited. We mingled, ate bagels and watched the sun come up.

Anthony Tommasini