The last in-person cultural event I attended before the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down was a concert presented by Death of Classical that took place in a crypt. So what better setting than a cemetery to resume a classical music habit in the new post-pandemic reality, with a concert from the same series?
Death of Classical’s celebratory June 25 concert featured Grammy-winning violinist Gil Shaham and a five-member distillation of the Brooklyn ensemble The Knights playing their “pocket” version of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. On hand to open the festive sunset event were the Grand Street Stompers, an eight-piece “small big band.” With golden-era hits and original tunes, the Stompers help keep swing music alive and kicking. It all took place in front of the parakeet-swirled gothic arches at Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery.
Green-Wood is a lively place on any day of the year, with its trees of the world (the cemetery is also an arboretum), swan-bejeweled ponds, amorous groundhogs, imported Italian lizards, and multitudinous songbirds. On this firefly-studded evening, food trucks and whisky tastings made a concert event into a mini-festival for a sold-out crowd of 600. A few folks even danced as the Stompers played two sparkling sets that included oldies like “Don’t Fence Me In” and Fats Waller’s “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” with an effervescent Kim Hawkey on vocals. New Orleans-style stomps and Dixieland party tunes were also on the menu. Swing beats and Beethoven may not seem like natural mates, but this kind of vintage jazz and the Violin Concerto both offer powerful rhythmic energy and unforgettable themes.
After darkness had fully fallen, violinist Gil Shaham took the stage and played an acrobatic miniature called “Lenny in Spats.” The piece is William Bolcom’s tribute to Leonard Bernstein, who is buried at Green-Wood. The festival atmosphere continued to brew as The Knights joined Shaham for the main event. Timpanist Ian Sullivan took up his position behind kettle drums glowing with multicolored lights, joined by flute, piano, cello, and Knights co-founder Colin Jacobsen on violin. The Knights assemblage was thus a modified version of a Pierrot Ensemble – a small chamber configuration associated mostly with 20th-century music – minus only the clarinet, and joined by a violin soloist.
Of course a full orchestra is usually called upon to perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and I wondered how this small group would project, for example, the important role of the woodwinds in the first movement. In the event, their stripped-down transcription covered this ground pretty effectively with flute and piano. As the introduction proceeded, my ear rapidly adjusted, thanks to artful arranging and vibrant playing, and once Shaham’s effortless-seeming virtuosity took the spotlight I wasn’t wishing for anything. (Bassoons? Bass viols? Who needs ’em?)
With a small chamber group in a wide-open outdoor setting, amplification is needed, but it was applied tastefully here, marred only by occasional imperfections in volume balance among the instruments. I don’t imagine Beethoven would have disapproved, especially with his hearing loss.
Shaham’s remarkable range of colors emerged in full bloom through the difficult runs and arpeggios, the softer passages, and the sizzling cadenza that climaxed the long first movement. His distinctive phrasing marked as natural and perfect a performance of the Larghetto as I’ve ever heard. And the ensemble conveyed the sweeping bombast of the closing Rondo better than I could have imagined given their numbers.
Numbers aside, this concerto is one of the classical repertoire’s prime showcases for violin, and with a soloist as sensitive and assured as Shaham and accompanying players as accomplished as The Knights, even a “pocket” version was almost sure to please. But these musicians went beyond merely simulating an orchestra; they exposed the polished heart of Beethoven’s vision of a virtuosic display, broadcasting it through the night for the benefit of all – the quick and the dead alike. I expect Lenny was smiling down on us from his hillside eyrie.
Gil Shaham and The Knights also recently recorded the Beethoven and Brahms violin concertos.
Visit Death of Classical online for its full 2021 schedule of unique concert events.