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death of classical mass for the endangered green-wood cemetery catacombs sarah kirkland snider
Photo credit: Critical Lens Media

Concert Review (NYC): ‘Mass for the Endangered’ by Sarah Kirkland Snider at the Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs, Brooklyn (14 June 2022)

Death of Classical began its new season of concerts in the Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs with a spectacular piece for chorus and small orchestra by Sarah Kirkland Snider. Mass for the Endangered both celebrates the natural world and laments its continuing destruction by humankind. But hopelessness is belied by the fecund creativity of this music, powerfully performed under swirling projections in a dark space underneath – or more accurately, inside – one of the city’s most beautiful outdoor environments.

“World forgive us,” intones the choir (Gallicantus, led by Gabriel Crouch) in the opening “Kyrie.” Those words are by Nathaniel Bellows, whose poems, combined with parts of the original Latin Mass, form the compelling libretto. On the arched ceiling and walls, projections by Deborah Johnson/CandyStations brilliantly merged abstraction with figures from nature, forming the third panel of this astonishingly inventive triptych.

One would have needed far better vision than mine to read the printed libretto in the darkness of the Catacombs. But no matter: the stunning music itself beseeched nature to forgive the terrible damage already done and humanity to relent. I didn’t mind catching up with the text later.

Piercing, anxious, even terrifying are words that came to my mind during the “Kyrie.” Glowing close vocal harmonies dialogued with gentle piano figures and schizophrenic string accompaniment, leading to a march-like development and a haunting six-note motif which recurs in the closing “Agnus Dei.”

Spidery harp figures underlie the haunting “Gloria” as first the female voices and later the male revert to Latin to sing pretty melodies that carry unresolved tension. The harp wanders in and out of consonance with the voices, then the orchestra embodies an ominously ticking clock.

Nervousness dominates the “Alleluia” with its gravelly evocation of the despoiling of the sea and land: “Poison, parch, pollute…Fracture, foist, defoul…” Yet hope seems to be in the air: the sea (or planet) will “wake, rise, rejoin/her daughters and her sons.”

Animal-like sounds percolate through the “Credo,” the throbbing centerpiece of the Mass, as Bellows’ text turns the religious original into a paean to the defenseless: “We believe in all who are voiceless…Lay down the spear, lay down the hook…”

The “Sanctus/Benedictus” movement floats the original Latin prayer through Snider’s unique musical language. A soulful chorale gives way to a section that hints at folk dance. When the choir commences to repeat a two-note motif as the orchestra eerily climbs a harmonized scale, the music blossoms into something as kaleidoscopic as the projections that danced above. Finally, a crystalline “Agnus Dei” beseeches the Lamb of God to grant animals the peace “To bathe and breed/with no threat or risk – trade our sins,/our trespasses,/for bliss.”

Sound pipes through the long, narrow hall with singular focus, to the benefit of any music I’ve ever heard played here. This ensemble – the Gallicantus singers plus instrumentalists from Decoda – may have been unusually large for the space, but there was no sonic confusion. If anything, individual parts rang out with added force – the water-drop harp plucks in the “Gloria,” the striking bass viol figures in the “Credo,” the coolly soaring soprano voice in the “Agnus Dei.”

With Mass for the Endangered Sarah Kirkland Snider fuses a cornucopia of musical styles and ideas and a unique way of harmony writing into a remarkable compositional voice. The guided walks through the beautiful cemetery to and from the Catacombs first open the body and soul to appreciate the music, then released the stored energy back into a world for which, perhaps, there’s some hope after all. Visit Death of Classical for information and tickets for upcoming events in Green-Wood Cemetery and other unconventional New York City locations.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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