If you want to be classically hip in New York City, or if the word underground means anything to you, you should know about Death of Classical‘s unusual concert series. I’ve heard great performances of great music in the Catacombs of Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery. And last week I finally made it to the Crypt Sessions, beneath the Church of the Intercession in Harlem, to hear a wide-ranging concert of Baroque music from the period-instrument Diderot String Quartet with keyboardist Harry Bicket (also, incidentally, a Metropolitan Opera conductor) and theorbo player John Lenti.
No bodies are interred in this modest crypt, as far as I know – though Eliza Jumel and many others rest in peace in Trinity Church’s adjoining churchyards – so there’s plenty of room for a small audience to comfortably experience its glorious acoustics, whoever might be on stage. But curator Andrew Ousley doesn’t book “whoever.” He goes out of his way to engage very hip lineups of top-tier artists for these lively, if ghostly, events.
The 6 March program, entitled “Journeys,” spanned Baroque-era Europe. J.S. Bach and a selection of lesser-known composers provided the script as the musicians made the stone chamber sing.
Venetian composer Dario Castello’s “Sonata Decima Sesta” included an especially haunting lyrical passage featuring violinists Johanna Novom and Adriane Post. But this first piece demonstrated right away not only the crypt’s wonderfully clear, deep sonority, but all the musicians’ skill and comfort with this era’s repertoire. You could hear Lenti’s theorbo loud and clear, while Bicket’s harpsichord and small organ, though melded subtly into the mix as always in these ensembles, registered five-by-five to the attentive ear.
A theorbo-and-cello duet passage stood out early in a brilliant performance of German composer Johann Philipp Krieger‘s “Sonata a 4 in F Major.” The piece also includes a slow Chaconne that put us firmly in the Baroque spirit; the ensemble dug into its many inventive variations with passion, deep bass lines resounding from the theorbo like elephant heartbeats. The violins trade bars, the cello gets a feature, and rapid violin passages swoop in over an sea of counterpoint as the Chaconne draws to a close.
This was one of the richest-sounding, most soulful Baroque concerts I’ve heard anywhere. It continued with the Concerto No. 2 in G minor by Italian composer Francesco Durante. Tutti passages in the opening movement shone with Brahmsian force, and the lilting Largo sparkled – with my eyes closed I could almost see flashes of light of different colors emanating from the various instruments. (Was there something mind-altering emanating from those artificial candles on the floor?) The Allegro, in turn, possessed a gravity that belied its sprightly tempo.
Nimble phrasing and dynamics lit up the Passacaglia from one of French composer Georg Muffat‘s Armonico Tributo sonatas. Certain passages suggested the sounds of woodwinds and even a pipe organ amid the group’s deft, graceful ensemble playing. And the concert concluded with music in which a flute might have been involved at the start: Musicologists aren’t sure about the intended instrumentation for what became Bach’s Suite in A minor for strings and continuo. A sure-handed, emotionally resonant performance of Werner Breig’s reconstruction of this more familiar music wrapped up this Crypt Session.
The next one, April 20, features noted violinist Lara St. John and jazz and classical pianist Matt Herskowitz playing music by Beethoven and César Franck. Visit the Death of Classical website for information and tickets.