Sunday, June 06, 2021

Concert Review(!): Hymn To The City

There was a sound. It was coming from over there, traveling through air to me, here. It was music and it was LIVE, being played right in front of me. The fact that it was a quintet made up of players from the New York Philharmonic and they were engaged in a delightful arrangement of Aaron Copland's Simple Gifts was almost immaterial. But it was the ideal way to begin my first live concert since March 2020, the light, lilting refrain giving voice to my gratitude for the opportunity to be there.

And where was there? We were in Green-Wood Cemetery, one of the jewels of Brooklyn on a guided musical tour arranged by the visionaries at Death Of Classical with the grand title of Hymn To The City. By the time we got to the Pilot's Monument, we had already been treated to a spirits tasting that included mezcal, whiskey, tequila, and gin along with some snacks, lending a convivial atmosphere even as we all sought to remain distanced and masked when not eating or drinking. It felt quite luxurious to be sipping on an extraordinary rye from Coppersea, a complex gin from Appalachian Gap, or Madre's full-bodied Mezcal while the sun set. Never let it be said that DOC doesn't know how to take care of people!

Death Of Classical's Andrew Ousley welcomes the audience.

Our next stop was the Brooklyn Theatre Fire Monument, where we were treated to a lovely reading by our tour guide of James Weldon Johnson's My City, a moment that also paid tribute to the first responders and health care heroes who are so critical to the life of the Big Apple. Then, we were off to hear music in a peripatetic journey through locations and styles. Scroll through the following commentary and pictures to get the flavor of the experience. 

The audience on the move.

Along with the sweet strains of Simple Gifts, we also heard a very brief arrangement of Sergio Ortega's El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!, which increased the feeling that we were all in this together. 
On Battle Hill, near the grave of Leonard Bernstein, a brass quintet played selections from West Side Story. The setting and occasion thawed my antipathy to Bernstein slightly and I also enjoyed watching the audience take delight in the familiar tunes. 
The Hill Of Graves is Green-Wood's version of a potter's field, with many first-wave immigrants of no social standing buried there. It was a moving place to hear Paul Simon's American Tune, slightly dated though it is, and Marco Foster brought both restraint and open-hearted sincerity to his performance. 
Café Damas, commissioned by the NY Phil from composer Kinan Azmeh in 2019, is an intriguing piece, in a style that might be called "Silk Road Ensemble," with moods and methods of his native Syria blending with classical rigor. A dancer, who may have been costumed as a 19th century immigrant, lent atmosphere as the sun set.
The preceding rains had moved the next location from the Chauncey Family Mausoleum to this evocative spot, framed by weeping beech trees. The second movement of Florence Price's String Quartet in G Major was a lovely representation of her quintessentially American style and gorgeously played. Baritone Paul Grosvenor sang Over My Head, the traditional spiritual, a cappella, in a commanding if somewhat rhythmically rigid performance. It resonated nicely with Price's melodicism still hanging in the hair.
It was nearly full dark when we arrived at the entrance to The Catacombs, a sort of apartment house mausoleum for the middle class. 
Within was a long narrow corridor with folding chairs set up along its length. Once we were seated, Adam Tendler launched into his astonishing arrangement of George Gershwin's Cadenza on Rhapsody in Blue. He managed to encapsulate all that makes Gershwin's piece so compelling, while moving it firmly into the 21st century with some extended techniques. The man can PLAY and his piano sounded magnificent in the space. 
Next, Lucy Dhegrae, one of the great singers of our time, emerged from a side door to sing Sarah Kirkland Snider's How Graceful Some Things Are, Falling Apart, a rawly emotional homage to New York's resilience after 9/11. As Dhegrae's magisterial voice filled the space, I had a feeling of coming full circle, as she had sung at my last concert in 2020, a shattering U.S. premiere of Toshio Hosokawa's Futari Shizuka with the Talea Ensemble. It seemed only right that she would be a part of my road back to live music 16 months later. The Catalyst Quartet emerged next and played Credo, a piece by Kevin Puts that seemed to put the world right as it stacked consonance upon consonance, building something of limpid beauty in the air. By this point, I really felt I was at a concert and it was glorious. Pure cake icing arrived in the performance of Goin' Home, the song by William Arms Fisher with a melody from Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony. In the arrangement by Noah Luna, with quartet, piano, and Dhegrae all shooting for the stars, it was a masterstroke to end the evening. 
There was still the walk back to the entrance, with iPhone flashlights flickering along the path, which was a nice opportunity to chat with one of my neighbors and contemplate all I had seen and heard. 

With Hymn To The City, Death Of Classical once again proved what an incredible asset they are to the musical life of our city, employing a touch of theater and a sure curatorial touch to put together a truly memorable experience. If you're looking to ease back into concert going, their upcoming events could be just the thing. Long may they reign!

You may also enjoy: 
2 Nights 4 Trios 1 Duo
Jack In The Crypt
Best Of 2018: Three Concerts

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