Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, N.Y.; May 26, 2023—Impresario Andrew Ousley’s “Death of Classical” continues apace. It is a quite marvelous concept wherein Classical Music and occasionally, opera, is presented in odd places–cemeteries, catacombs, crypts–and the evenings are paired with food, drink, and spirits. The casually dressed, feeling-like-having-a-musical-and-sensual-experience audience again found itself in Brooklyn’s landmark Green-Wood cemetery, almost 500 acres of rolling hills and statuary that one enters under a grand Gothic Arch.
On May 26th, a pre-performance by the eight-member jazz-swing band, The Grand St. Stompers, played standards from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s with joy and precision. The classical music entry was John Tavener’s (1944-2013) The Protecting Veil, a 45-minute meditation on the 10th-century vision of the Virgin Mary as she cast her Protecting Veil over Christian soldiers about to be killed by the Saracens. In fact, the eight short sections, performed without pauses, cover much of Mary’s life, and are meant (explained Tavener) as an aural counterpart to Greek Orthodox iconography. He also saw it as a paean to the nurturing, altruistic nature of women in contrast to the patriarchy. An odd ambition for a piece of wordless music, not altogether successfully realized. We’ll have to take Tavener’s word for it.
Scored for solo cello and string orchestra, it was here arranged for reduced strings–15 strong–by the Contemporaneous Ensemble, with Joshua Roman as soloist. The reduction of the string section led to great clarity and sharp contrasts; the soloist plays the virtuoso part without pause and great lyricism, while the other strings interject, comment, and offer drama, sometimes with cruel dissonances, even more stabbing here than with a larger complement of players. The fifth section, in which Mary is seen lamenting at the foot of the Cross, starts prayerfully but ends with an emotional outburst from the soloist. Each section ends softly and makes way for the next. There is a grand disruption near the end as Jesus is resurrected, quite glorious in its effect.
The piece was led by composer Matthew Aucoin, whose full-scale opera, Euridice, was a great success as mounted by none other than the Metropolitan Opera last year. A 2018 MacArthur Fellow, Aucoin has music in his fingers and urged gorgeous, sometimes hypnotic, sometimes truly passionate playing from soloist Roman, who elicited warm, vibrato-full sound from his cello at its darkest and brilliant sounds from the higher registers. The Ensemble played with energy and verve from the tenderest pianissimos to the wildest fortes.
Just for the record, the Tavener was alliteratively paired with Tequila and tacos, supplied by the presenter and various food trucks sprinkled throughout the cemetery. The perfect weather, setting, and gracious hosts offered, as ever, a marvelous, whole experience, bringing music to life where you might not expect it.