Deep in the Catacombs, Harp and Strings Never Sounded More Menacing
You probably wouldn’t expect a concert in a graveyard to be particularly lively. But this past evening’s program deep in Green-Wood Cemetery was as intimately ferocious as it was macabre. With only candles and a couple of low-watt ceiling lamps illuminating the private catacombs there, impresario Andrew Ousley introduced Bridget Kibbey as “The dark gothic goddess of the harp.” That description no doubt reflected her decision to hang out by herself down there before the show and practice for a couple of hours, in the company of about 120 fulltime residents contained in thirty family crypts.
Obviously, not everything Kibbey plays is morbid, nor were there any dirges on this particular bill. But the performance had enough grimness and sheer terror for any respectable Halloween event. Joining forces with an allstar string quartet – violinists Chad Hoopes and Grace Park, violist Matthew Lipman and cellist Mihai Marica – Kibbey opened with Debussy’s Dances Sacred and Profane. Beyond the piece’s kaleidoscopic dynamics, what was most viscerally striking is how loud it was down there. For anyone who might assume that chamber music is necessarily sedate, this was a wild wake-up call.
The space’s resonance is just as remarkable: no matter how intricate Kibbey’s lattice of notes became, they all lingered, an effect that powerfully benefited the string section as well. And the sheer volume afforded a listener a rare chance to revel in Debussy’s echoing exchanges of riffs, not to mention his clever shifts in and out of Asian pentatonic mode, his jaunty allusions to French ragtime and occasional gargoylish motives.
As omnipresent and fiery as Kibbey’s volleys of notes were, the most adrenalizing point of the concert was Hoopes’ solo midway through Saint-Saens’ Fantaisie, robustly arranged by Kibbey for violin and harp. Careening like he was about to leave the rails for good, his notes lept and flailed with a feral abandon, grounded by Kibbey’s alterlnately sparkling and looming attack.
Likewise, her use of the harp’s low register was one of the most stunning aspects of her solo arrangement of Bach’s Toccata in D. In that context, it was fascinating to hear how much of that organ work’s pedal line she retained. As perfomance, it was pure punk rock. Kibbey confided that she’d come up with it on a dare – and that the dude who dared her remains a friend. At the very end, she abandoned Bach’s seesaw drive toward an end that’s been coming a mile away for a long time, then blasted through every red light and tossed off that otherwise immortal five-chord coda in what seemed like a split second. The effect was as funny as it was iconoclastic.
Lipman took centerstage with his alternately balletesque and plaintive lines in Kibbey’s cinematic duo version of Britten’s Lachrymae. As she explained it, the piece is far from morose – describing it as a tour of a mansion was spot-on. The group closed with a piece that Kibbey and Marica have had creepy fun with in the past, Andre Caplet’s Conte Fantastique. As it followed the grand guignol detail of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death, the ensemble spun an uneasily rising and then suspensefully falling tapestry. They maxed out the trick ending, the 11 PM hour where the entitled types at Poe’s masked ball get a hint of a reality check. When death himself showed his face, the carnivalesque payoff was a mighty one. Despite temperatures in the pleasantly loamy-smelling catacombs being at least twenty degrees lower than they were topside, everybody was out of breath by the end.
Afterward, a refreshingly airconditioned shuttle bus returned to pick up anyone who had to rush for the train down the hill. Those not pressed for time had the option of taking a leisurely fifteen-minute walk back through the graves, lit only by the night sky and the occasional tiki torch.
This concert series began in a smaller crypt space in Harlem and has made a welcome migration to Brooklyn. Along with the music, there are always noshes and drinks beforehand as part of the package. This time it was small-batch whiskey: upstate distillery Five & 20, whose overproof rye glistens with the bite of five New York varietals, stole that part of the show.
If these mostly-monthly events intrigue you, be aware that the best way to find out when they’re happening is via the organizers’ email list. You can sign up at deathofclassical.com, unsurprisingly, tickets go very fast.