The temperature was north of 85 degrees, not to mention the humidity, and I found myself in a cemetery in Brooklyn listening to the New York Philharmonic. It felt like a quintessential New York evening, yet was also something that wouldn’t have happened before the global pandemic forced us outdoors. Would I have been traipsing through gravesites in pursuit of various quartets before last March or would I, instead, have been sitting in an airconditioned seat at David Geffen Hall? Copious amounts of sweat aside, I have to say I prefer the 2021 version.
The producing organization Death of Classical is “committed to bringing new life to the performing arts by creating unique and unexpected concert experiences,” and with Hymn to the City, presented alongside Green-Wood Cemetery and the Philharmonic, they achieved just that. Not only did the Cemetery’s surroundings make the music more accessible by eradicating the distance of a typical stage and proscenium, it made the audience listen more. Often unamplified, the musicians in five separate locations across the Cemetery had unexpected accompaniment by way of chirping birds, distant traffic, and, briefly, an apartment blasting Madonna. But rather than a nuisance, these disparate elements came together to form a sound that was distinctly New York.
The first musical offering took place in front of the Pilots’ Monument, where a pair of flutes, two violins, and a cello played Aaron Copland’s “Simple Gifts” overlooking the harbor below. The Copland was followed by Sergio Ortega’s “¡El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!”, which translates as “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”. It was at this first stop that some (still living) residents of Greenwood Heights decided to blare “Borderline,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” and “Dancing with Myself,” over the entire set. It was often hard to hear the musicians, but occasionally Alison Fierst and Mindy Kaufman’s flutes pierced through the extraneous noise and flew out over the water.
From there, the program hit one of its highs. We trekked to the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein’s gravesite, over which a brass quintet played a suite from Bernstein’s West Side Story. Thomas Smith’s trumpet took the melody line usually sung by the actor playing Tony and Ethan Bensdorf’s trumpet doubled for Maria. After a virtuosic performance by Smith on Tony’s aria, “Maria”, came the most moving section: a medley of “Tonight”, Maria and Tony’s love duet and the “Tonight Quintet”, an extravagantly layered reprise that, in the show, incorporates the entire ensemble. The arrangement by J. Gale retained the spirit of the full company vocals as well as the propulsive, tension-building rhythms of the original orchestration with driving responses from the trombone players Colin Williams and George Curran and Richard Deane on horn. The pure magic of Bernstein’s composition was enlivened by these artists playing just above his grave–so much so that it felt like Bernstein could rise and begin conducting at any time. The set closed with “I Feel Pretty” at what, after the transcendent “Tonight”, felt like a slightly relaxed tempo. It would have been more effective to close with the middle section, but overall these five men played their hearts out and did Bernstein proud.
At the Hill of Graves, where many immigrants from New York’s past find their final place of rest, Marco Foster offered a guitar & vocals rendition of Paul Simon’s “American Tune”. Our tour guide acknowledged that Simon was inspired by Bach in his competition, which felt like a tenuous connection to make just for the sake of tying it to classical music. Foster has a pleasant voice and his performance did justice to Simon, but the singer-songwriter feel was at odds with the rest of the program. Liana Kleinman then performed a solo dance to Kinan Azmeh’s “Café Damas”, played by the trio of Jin Suk Yu on violin, Leah Ferguson on viola, and Max Zeunger on bass. Azmeh’s composition moves through a variety of musical textures, particularly for Zeunger’s bass, all thrillingly achieved. Kleinman’s dance was full of conflicting gestures, slapping her own hands away, her face rising into a smile and immediately falling down. Towards the climax she mouthed words entirely inaudible to us, but quite intriguing.
By the time we reached the Chauncey Family Mausoleum, it was fully dark and the castle-like structure was lit with glowing orange and yellow lights. Despite being surrounded by the dead for an hour at this point, the events never felt creepy until then–but in a good way. Florence Price’s “String Quartet in G Major: II. Andante moderato” was performed by the excellent string quartet of Qianqian Li and Na Sun on violin, Vivek Kamath on viola, and Sumire Kudo on cello. This was followed by Paul Grosvenor, a strong-voiced baritone, appearing from around the Mausoleum to sing the spiritual “Over My Head” a cappella. The music spread into the darkness around us and lingered there long after the performers had stopped playing.
The last stop was the second highlight of the program. Death of Classical often produces events inside the catacombs of Green-Wood Cemetery, and for good reason. Carved into the hillside, the long narrow passageway and more expansive end section offer incredible acoustics. Playing a full size Yamaha piano tucked inside the tiny space, Adam Tendler unleashed his own arrangement of the cadenza from George Gershwin’s seminal piece “Rhapsody in Blue”, which continues to sound exactly like New York City nearly one hundred years after its composition. Tendler’s arrangement brought more excitement to an already thrilling, but familiar, piece of music. His playing was captivating and a piece of theatre on its own. Mezzo-soprano Lucy Dhegrae joined Tendler for an emotive rendition of Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “How Graceful Things Are, Falling Apart”, followed by the Catalyst Quartet performing Kevin Puts’ “Credo” played with an almost unbelievable amount of sensitivity. The pairing of these two pieces back to back brought tears to my eyes. It was communing with music on its truest level, with excellent musicians performing live. The program closed with Antonín Dvořák and William Arms Fisher’s “Goin’ Home” sung by Dhegrae and played by Tendler and the Quartet. It was a fitting send off, a purgation of the massive feelings brought on by the two previous pieces.
Walking the mile or so from the catacombs to the train, I relived the two previous hours and felt enriched and enlivened. Listening to music on headphones is just not the same and it was such a gift to be back at it in person. Death of Classical is producing more events in Green-Wood Cemetery this summer and I would encourage anyone to attend, even if classical music isn’t your thing. The environment feeds the music and vice versa, and the best of both worlds commingle into something truly special.