WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS | New York, Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue

‘I did not restrain myself,’ recites Rufus Wainwright, standing dead center of the French High Gothic grandeur of Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (the venue for this this Death of Classical concert). ‘I let go completely and went. To those pleasures that were partly real, partly swirling in my mind, I went, into the lighted night. And drank of potent wines, such as the fearless in their sensual pleasure drink.’

While these words could be his confessional own (an addendum to ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk’ in another life) they are in fact lines from C.P. Cavafy’s ‘I Went’, one of eight poems that have been newly set to music for this evening’s celebration of the Greek poet. The first offering is composed by Wainwright (arranged by Missy Mazzoli) and animated by Rufus’s sultry voice along with chamber orchestral forces supplied by The Knights. Sitting beneath the church’s chandeliers (aptly enjoying an arrangement of ‘Chandelier’) we all of us drink the concoction of old poetry, new music and fizzing music served courtesy of The Alexander S. Onassis Benefit Foundation. While pondering the theme of loss, we also receive the generous music of Helga Davis, Petros Klampanis, The Knights, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus (directed by Dianne Berkun Menaker). They render ‘Cavafy Ghost’ (composed by Davis and Klampanis) amidst harp, bass, subterranean subway rumbles and eerie choral whispers that Billie Eilish would be proud of.

After Eleni Calenos’s voice serves as the operatic vehicle for new music by Dimitris Papadimitriou & Nathan Thatcher (‘The Return’) and Nico Muhly (‘Far Away Songs’), the brilliant young artists of Brooklyn Youth Chorus return to deliver ‘Voices’. Their voices (and indeed hands) reaching up towards the faint light spilling though smoky stained-glass panels above. Heads bob, trance-like, and hands are used creatively once more to create a muted effect for Paola Prestini’s piece. In this creative crescendo, it’s only fitting that the evening is brought to a head with chorus and orchestra swirling alongside Laurie Anderson for her interpretations of ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ and ‘Ithaka’.

As synth flows into bassoon flows into bass, Laurie’s piece sprouts many musical lines to fill the space. Here also is a humor in her delivery that is a notable inflection to the end of the programme. ‘Why isn’t anything going on in the senate? Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?’ — these are questions that seem contemporary and amusing to the audience. It is a feast for the musically curious, and although we were supposed to be thinking about loss, that’s a difficult task when an evening is as generous as this one. After all, an evening for Cavafy is not one for restraint.

Encounter more Death of Classical series here and the Archive of Desire festival here.

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