Hymn to the City celebrates New York’s resilience and renewal after a year of trauma, loss and mourning

United StatesUnited States Various, Hymn to the City: Lucy Dhegrae (mezzo-soprano), Paul Grosvenor (baritone), Marco Foster (vocals & guitar), Linda Kleinman (dancer), Catalyst Quartet, Members of the New York Philharmonic. Green-Wood Cemetery  Brooklyn, 5.6.2021. (RP)

James Weldon Johnson – ‘My City’
Aaron Copland – ‘Simple Gifts’ (arr. Mindy Kaufman)
Sergio Ortega – ‘El pueblo unido jamás serán vencido’ (arr. Shawn Lovato)
Leonard Bernstein – Selections from West Side Story (arr. Jack Gale)
Paul Simon – ‘American Tune’
Kinan Azmeh – Café Damas
Florence Price – String Quartet in G major, II. Andante moderato
Traditional Spiritual – ‘Over My Head’
George Gershwin – Cadenza on Rhapsody in Blue (arr. Adam Tendler)
Sarah Kirkland Snider – ‘How Graceful Some Things Are’, ‘Falling Apart’
Kevin Puts – ‘Credo’
Antonín Dvorák & William Arms Fisher – ‘Goin’ Home’ (arr. Noah Luna)

A year ago, New York City was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 33,300 lives have been lost in the US’s largest city since the first case was reported on 1 March 2020, but vaccination rates are steadily rising, and there is now light at the end of the tunnel. Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared that the city will be open for business as usual in July, and a mega-concert planned for the following month in Central Park is intended as a celebration for the city’s residents and an invitation for tourists to return.

For three evenings on the first weekend in June, however, there were smaller, quieter celebrations of New York’s spirit and renewal after a year of pain and mourning at another of the city’s great outdoor spaces, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Hymn to the City, co-curated by Death of Classical founder Andrew Ousley, Green-Wood’s Director of Public Programs Harry Weil and the New York Philharmonic, paid tribute to the city and its people through music, dance and poetry, as well as stories of the cemetery’s permanent residents.

NY Phil brass play Bernstein © Kevin Condon

It was a coup for Ousley and Weil to lure the NY Phil to Green-Wood, but important parts of its history are to be found there. Mary R. Seney Sheldon, who was its first female president and the person chiefly responsible for hiring Gustav Mahler as music director in 1909, is buried there. So too is Leonard Bernstein, who was named the orchestra’s music director in 1957 and held the post until 1969.

Leonard Bernstein’s grave © Steven Pisano

A brass quintet drawn from the orchestra played selections from West Side Story, just a few feet from Bernstein’s grave on Battle Hill, where the largest battle of the American Revolutionary War was fought in August 1776. Steamy weather made for some sticky valves and slides, but the audience listened with rapt attention to the familiar melodies and rhythms from the ever-popular musical. Hornist Richard Deane’s playing of the three-note theme from ‘Maria’ was as beautiful as it was haunting, while bass-trombonist George Curran had a field day with ‘I feel pretty’.

For over 90 minutes the audience walked through the cemetery, stopping at a few of the monuments to learn about them and to listen to music that linked to their stories. At Pilot’s Monument, the final resting place of Thomas Freeborn, a nautical pilot who went down with the packet ship John Minturn in a nor’easter on a freezing winter night in 1846, an ensemble of woodwinds and strings played Copland’s ‘Simple Gifts’ and Ortega’s ‘El pueblo unido jamás serán vencido’, or ‘The people united will never be divided’ as it is known in English, a song that has been sung in protests the world over.

A bit further along, Marco Foster sang Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’, and strings from the NY Phil performed Kinan Azmeh’s Café Damas at the Hill of Graves, which contains the markers of men who died during the American Civil War. Along the way there were also the simple grave stones of immigrants.

Café Damas was premiered by the NY Phil in 2018 as part of New York Stories: Threads of Our City, which examined New York’s roots as a city of immigrants. With the audience seated on the grass, dancer Liana Kleinman interpreted Azmeh’s re-imagination of the sounds of a traditional house band in his hometown of Damascus in Syria. Her movements poignantly captured the yearning in the music for a past that has been erased by time and conflict.

NY Phil strings play Florence Price (c) Rick Perdian

The walls of the magnificent neo-Gothic Chauncey Family Mausoleum served as an acoustical shell for music that linked to the Black experience in America. Violinist Qianqian Li made the gorgeous melody of the second movement of Florence Price’s String Quartet in G major sing. Price was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, as well as the first to have a composition played by a major American orchestra.

It was followed by Paul Grosvenor singing the traditional spiritual ‘Over My Head’ in his warm baritone. The song begins with the lines ‘Over my head/I hear music in the air’. Grosvenor had to compete with the sound of airplanes approaching JFK Airport, which after a year of so much silence was also music of a sort.

The final selections were heard in the cemetery’s Catacombs, which is the regular venue for Ousley’s The Angel’s Share concert series. Pianist Adam Tendler played his own dazzling and moving Cadenza on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which captured the vitality of New York City in sound as only Gershwin, who was born in Brooklyn, could.

Lucy Dhegrae was spellbinding in two songs by Sarah Kirkland Snider, especially in ‘Falling Apart’ which Snider composed in an attempt to give expression to the unfathomable trauma of 9/11. The last line recalls the grace in how New York came together to rescue and heal itself, something that she, living in lower Manhattan, experienced firsthand.

After a shimmering performance of Kevin Puts’s ‘Credo’ by the Catalyst Quartet, composed as a mediation on America in 2007, singers and instrumentals performed ‘Goin’ Home’, a song by William Arms Fisher based on the much-loved melody from the second movement of Dvorák’s Symphony No.9. It was the benediction on this tapestry of words, music and sights that was indeed a hymn to this fabulous city.

Rick Perdian

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