Although it may seem macabre to stage a concert surrounded by gravestones, social events in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery are not all that unusual. And when the harpist Bridget Kibbey practiced for her upcoming performance alone in the catacombs, she said it was perfectly peaceful.
The cemetery, founded in 1838, became a popular tourist destination because of its opulent Gothic architecture and the notable names etched on its mausolea. But after Central Park and Prospect Park opened in the next few decades, people began to picnic elsewhere. By the 1970s, what was once the nation’s second-most-popular tourist attraction had fallen into decay.
But in the past ten years, Green-Wood Cemetery has revamped its efforts to bring people (the still-breathing ones) into the grounds, with trolley tours of its 478 hilly and stone-studded acres, bird-watching excursions, and other public events held alongside its 560,000 permanent residents.
The attempt to bring the cemetery back to public life can seem dissonant. This week, for the opening installment in “The Angel’s Share,” a series of concerts in the catacombs this summer and fall, it meant pre-concert whiskey tasting and cheese and crackers in a crematorium for a not-inconsiderable ticket price. But it also meant the chance to experience sepulchral musical masterpieces in a thematically appropriate setting.
The catacombs—usually closed to the public—are a neglected venue in the midst of a resurrection. Andrew Ousley, the producer of the series, also organizes concerts in a crypt at Harlem’s Church of the Intercession. This combination of music, history, and aesthetics is a dynamic enough combination to entice young musicians like the harpist Bridget Kibbey and her high-quality string quartet. Attendees milled around the community mausoleum, sipping whiskey and repeating to one another the accolades: She’s been called a “Yo-Yo Ma of the harp.” She’s a superstar. She’s the “dark goddess” of her instrument.
The green light of a gathering storm heightened the anticipation. When it broke minutes before the planned twilight stroll to the catacombs, Green-Wood’s trolleys ferried us to the narrow, tunnel-shaped “stage” flanked by two wings of around one hundred fifty seats. Electric candles flickered at our feet, illuminating the engraved names of the deceased.
No living voice could have been neglected in the catacombs. Sound is amplified and enriched under the arched stone ceiling; instead of echoing, the fortissimos of the strings built on themselves and pulled the audience inward.
Four black-clad musicians and a red-gowned one opened with Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane (L. 103). Kibbey’s tone, technique, and stage presence provided what her instrument lacked in volume. In the opening section, she tuned the audience’s eyes and ears to the way the harp colors a piece with sound and emotion. By the time the waltz came around, the entire ensemble was dancing.
The catacombs were built for people who wanted to be seen and heard: in the nineteenth century, many people were afraid of being buried alive, but they couldn’t afford their own free-standing mausoleums. Certainly, no living voice could have been neglected in the catacombs. Sound is amplified and enriched under the arched stone ceiling; instead of echoing, the fortissimos of the strings built on themselves and pulled the audience inward.
The richness of sound was a surprise: I had expected to hear dim echoes and dark musical thoughts, but had found myself in one of the most lively acoustic environments I’d ever experienced.
Something else that appeared in the catacombs, unexpectedly, was joy. In Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie for violin and harp (Op. 124), the violinist Chad Hoopes nearly stole the stage from Kibbey with a performance so pure and passionate that it glowed. Saint-Saens abandoned the piano for the harp in his later compositions because he preferred his strings to have a “thinner” sound, but that’s not what Kibbey and Hoopes offered us. By the time the violin reached the repeated high notes at the climax of the piece, the crypt was ringing: Hoopes was on his tiptoes, straining upward with the music, and Kibbey’s entire body reverberated each time she touched the harp. The two embraced afterward. I do not expect to see the piece performed with such pure passion again.
Kibbey displayed her characteristic boldness in a solo version of Bach’s iconic organ solo, Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565). Kibbey’s daring arrangement was characteristic of the tensions in the program—love, loss; joy, sorrow; sound, silence—but I preferred the natural magic of Kibbey and Hoopes to her attempt to translate the Toccata into the language of a musical instrument whose strengths so clearly lie elsewhere. And after all, what there was to learn from the Toccata, we had already seen: Kibbey embodies the bombast of the organ with her stage presence. She is technically excellent, and a master of the ritardando, the perfectly placed final note. But she could not create the organ’s continuous sound, and a piece that, on organ, evokes booming thunder merely crackled, stuttering in the pauses between movements.
But as the ensemble returned, so did the momentum of the concert. Britten’s Lachrymae (Op. 48a) consists of ten “reflections” on a song by John Dowland, an early-Renaissance composer famous for his melancholy compositions for voice and lute. Britten quotes snippets of “If my complaints could passions move,” piecing them together until the whole song appears in the final variation. The violist Matthew Lipman matched the elusiveness of Dowland’s song in his performance, almost too soft and halting in the beginning, and then spontaneously filling the space with an intensity that matched Kibbey’s.
Kibbey demonstrated the dangers of forgoing program notes when she introduced her final selection, Caplet’s Conte Fantastique, with a stumbling plot summary of “The Masque of the Red Death,” the Poe short story that inspired the piece. It’s Poe at his most horrifying, as a decadent ball is interrupted by Death personified, and it was Kibbey at her most awkward, but the effect was endearing.
As harp and ensemble launched into the most intense of the evening’s selections, both technically and thematically, the choice of Caplet revealed Kibbey’s strength as a musician: the sense for dramatic scope in her programming. She could have left us wistful, afloat in history with Britten’s reworking of Dowland. Instead, the night traversed the full range of mortality as musical theme. Kibbey led her quartet in a diabolical dance as they swayed together like the shadows at their feet, but they were also just kids having fun telling ghost stories in the graveyard.
The last note fell away into the applause of cicadas in the cemetery. “The Sacred & the Profane” was program music for all five senses, and it proved that the catacombs are not only a place for the dead.