New York’s Death of Classical performance series returned Friday (June 25) evening within Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery with Gil Shaham and the Knights taking on Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61. It’s a rarity to make out any constellation in New York City, so when the Big Dipper appeared, tilting down above the six-piece “pocket orchestra,” it was hard not to be arrested by the simple pleasure of live music under the night sky after a difficult year. As for concert settings, this one brought the drama. Pink and blue lights gently illuminated the shadowy stonework of the Gothic Arch towering behind the performers, making it seem like a Gothic Magic Kingdom made especially for the event.
Green-Wood Cemetery itself is a New York City institution, a 183-year-old graveyard in Greenwood Heights where musical icons from Leonard Bernstein to Pop Smoke are buried (the former was briefly feted with a small performance of William Bolcom’s “Lenny In Spats”). And although the idea of Death of Classical predates the pandemic, there was an unmistakable feeling of post-quarantine lightness to the entire event, undoubtedly aided by the addition of whisky, mezcal and gin tastings via various craft distilleries.
Prior to Ludwig Van, the Grand St. Stompers trotted out swing jazz and American songbook classics such as “Love Is Just Around the Corner” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” as attendees idled among graves, eying the headstones and mausoleums nestled into the rolling hills like a stony, silent Shire.
When dark fell, the boozy spirits were whisked away to make way for an after-dark mingling of visitors and residents. Some opted to sit on folding chairs on the pavement, while the less superstitious respectfully settled among the surprisingly soft grass around the monuments.
The performance itself was transcendent, with the setting providing a sense of sepulchral Zen as Gil Shaham and the Knights delivered an energetic, playful and well-paced Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61, which they recorded (along with a violin concerto from Brahms) for a recent album. While the arrangement for six players was partially due to the pandemic, Shaham explained it had historical precedent; when presented in 19th century living rooms for entertainment, this particular Beethoven piece would have been played by a similarly scaled back group.
When it wrapped, the attendees wandered back into the world of the living as the un-distilled spirits returned to their final resting places, at least for the time being. On July 8-9, Death of Classical creator/curator Andrew Ousley brings pianist Min Kwon to Green-Wood for America/Beautiful, a collection of variations on “America the Beautiful” performed within the cemetery’s catacombs.