Classical Music From New York’s Cemeteries And Catacombs On The Rise

Deep in one of New York’s most prestigious cemeteries, the eerie vibrations of a string concerto ricochet off catacomb walls, a seance of sorts invigorating the spirit of classical music.

Media reports regularly warn of the music’s impending doom, but Andrew Ousley, who founded the cheekily named Death Of Classical concert series in the US, says the obituaries are premature.

“Classical music can be relevant, it can be impactful for people who aren’t already among the template,” he said at a rehearsal in Brooklyn’s famed Green-Wood Cemetery. “The music is not dead; it’s the creativity of the approach in getting to audiences that feels more the issue to me.”

After debuting his Crypt Sessions series in 2015, an intimate show held in the crypt of Harlem’s Church of the Intercession, Ousley began curating shows in the National Historic Landmark cemetery, using the 1850s-era catacombs normally closed to the public as a venue.

American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, and politician William Magear Tweed (known for his corrupt mid-19th century reign over New York) are among Green-Wood’s famous residents.

The spooky haunts offer “extraordinary acoustics” that lend “an incredible generosity of sound that for classical, for acoustic music, for strings, voice, piano, is unbelievably enhancing,” said Ousley, 36.

The catacomb shows known as the Angel’s Share series , named after a distiller’s term for whiskey that evaporates as the liquor matures, include tastings of the spirit that encourage concert-goers to mingle.

“It’s important to surround the music with a larger experience,” said Ousley. “Especially for people who are less familiar with the rituals of classical music or the experience of it, it breaks down nervousness or a worry of, ‘Am I going to do the right thing, clap at the right time?’”

New York’s catacombs offer “extraordinary acoustics” that lend “an incredible generosity of sound that for classical, for acoustic music, for strings, voice, piano, is unbelievably enhancing”. Photo: AFP

The National Endowment for the Arts found that in 2017, 8.6% of US adults reported attending a classical music event, down from 11.6% in 2002. A more detailed study released in 2012 found a growing decline in classical attendance, with more than one-third of the audience over the age of 65.

Ousley said the crypt and catacomb shows draw in a mixed bag of audiences, ranging in age and expertise, defying the notion that classical music attendees are ageing out. “I try to have music to have integrity and quality, and a level of performance that’s high for somebody who’s seen a thousand shows,” said Ousley.

“But then also, programming and the presentation of it, the communication around the experience, and the experience itself that surrounds the music, to be as welcoming and unpretentious as possible for people who have never been,” he added.

Musicians at a rehearsal of the Death Of Classical series at Green-Wood Cemetery, New York. Photo: AFP

For Eli Spindel, artistic director of the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, major classical music institutions do sometimes “tend to be too conservative”.

“But the things that they’re able to accomplish are amazing and couldn’t be accomplished by people with smaller budgets, smaller venues,” he said. “You do want to have orchestras who are performing Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, in the highest level in a large hall.”

He sees traditional venues and more eccentric classical performances as essential to maintaining a healthy ecosystem for the genre to thrive.

This week, the programme in Green-Wood aptly centres on the subject of grief and “how we find catharsis and meaning in the loss of life,” said Ousley. The showcased piece is Stabat Mater, a medieval Christian hymn to Mary whose musical score was composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi in 1736.

The concert features Samuel Barber’s melancholic Adagio For Strings and Arvo Part’s Fratres, performed as immersive visual projections dance on the catacomb’s arched space.

“The smallest motion of the bow will just create very beautiful, blooming sound,” said Spindel. “This is a very appropriate chamber for this music,” he added with a smirk. – AFP

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