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Green-Wood Cemetery
Green-Wood Cemetery (photo credit: Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media)

Concerts in the Catacombs: Andrew Ousley on His Green-Wood Cemetery Chamber Music Series

Last summer I had the opportunity to attend a piano concert in the Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs. That’s right, inside the catacombs at Brooklyn’s landmark rural cemetery.

Green-Wood is known for cultural events that make its beautiful grounds much more than a final resting place for the famous and the not-so-famous. Even the Catacombs are sometimes open for tours – but only in the daytime, as far as I know. And as a venue for chamber music concerts – what kind of diabolical mind could think that up?

Fortunately, I’m a music reviewer, so I can tell you who. In fact, the creator of the Angel’s Share concert series at the Green-Wood Catacombs, Andrew Ousley, told me how it all got started.

See below for my interview with Ousley. Then be sure to check out my Q&A with violinist Augusta McKay Lodge. She and her Baroque ensemble Voyage Sonique are the next victims – I mean, featured performers – at the Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs. They will present a concert program appropriately titled “Epilogues and Epitaphs” June 24, 25, and 26.

Andrew, what’s the origin of The Angel’s Share concerts in the Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs? What gave you the inspiration?

Actually I started doing concerts in the Crypt Chapel under the Church of the Intercession in Harlem, a spectacular Gothic Crypt that seated 50 people. That series (The Crypt Sessions) got so much media attention that someone from Green-Wood reached out to me and told me about the Catacombs. I did a site visit and immediately knew it was a place we needed to produce concerts in – just so full of energy and intensity, not to mention the remarkable acoustics.

The Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs
The Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs

Your website explains that the “angel’s share” is what a distiller calls “whiskey that evaporates while maturing in the barrel, thus going to the angels.” The pre-concert receptions include whiskey tastings. Which came first, the series name or the whiskey sponsors? And what’s the whiskey connection?

What came first was my love and appreciation for whiskey, and my desire to combine an aesthetic and social experience like a whiskey tasting with the shared emotional experience of a musical performance. The name grew organically out of that idea (alongside the numerous and striking angel statues that populate Green-Wood), and it all made for a very appealing pitch to the distillers!

Yamaha is a sponsor and provides the pianos. But how do you get pianos to the Catacombs? In general, what are the logistical issues with staging concerts there – with getting the audience to the site, bringing in equipment, etc.?

There are no shortage of logistical issues with the site: lack of power, no climate control, hordes of spiders, etc. But we we work through them!

Yamaha are absolutely amazing partners, and their movers can do anything – we’ve had them move two pianos into and out of the Crypt, as well as the Catacombs, and they just figure out how to make it work somehow!

As for the audience, we do a twilight procession to the Catacombs through a gorgeous stretch of Green-Wood, and then a moonlit walk back after the show following a path of tiki torches. Unless it’s raining, in which case we take the cemetery’s perfectly charming trolley!

How do you select artists to approach about playing an Angel’s Share concert? Has anyone had a strange reaction when you proposed the idea? Or have artists or managers heard about the series and come to you?

Initially I just worked with artists that I’d collaborated with on publicity or in some other professional capacity, as they were artists I knew and trusted, and who understood what we were trying to do with the series. After a season or two in the Crypt, and a very successful launch to the Angel’s Share, we had enough media and industry attention that now I generally receive five to ten requests a week from artists or managers asking to perform on one of the series.

What’s your musical background, and how did you get into the music promotion field?

I actually was in rock bands my entire life, and never played any classical music! But my late mother was an opera singer, and so she instilled a love of Maria Callas in me, which led me to a classical record label (EMI Classics), and then eventually to starting my own company doing PR and marketing for classical musicians and organizations. I did the first few Crypt concerts on a whim, in order to promote some PR clients of ours, and the rest, they say, is history.

You’re in the vanguard of non-traditional classical music programming in NYC. Besides The Angel’s Share, you’ve staged a Burgers, Bourbon, & Beethoven Festival, promoted a new opera performed at the Metropolitan Museum’s intimate Astor Court, and set concerts at other unusual venues. Do you see this as a way to build new audiences for classical and other non-pop music?

Absolutely. I believe strongly that what my generation expects out of the concert experience is something very different from what Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall offer. Alternative venues, as well adding more curated, multi-sensory aspects to the evening, help break down preconceptions around the art form, and can make people feel more welcome and open to the experience, as opposed to worrying whether or not they’re going to get aggressively shushed for clapping at the wrong moment.

Not to mention that an intimate setting is the best way to listen to smaller-scale classical music – watching instrumentalists sweat over a difficult passage, or feeling a singer literally move air ten feet away from you, is absolutely astonishing.

What’s coming up?

Augusta McKay Lodge and her world-class Baroque ensemble Voyage Sonique are going to blow the roof off of the Catacombs June 24-26 with their remarkable program “Epilogues and Epitaphs” (including one of my absolute favorite pieces, Vivaldi’s La Folia). Then we’ll break for the summer, returning September 24-27 with the tremendous pianists Adam Tendler and Jenny Lin, tackling Liszt’s physically and spiritual-overwhelming Poetic and Religious Harmonies, and we’ll conclude the season with the String Orchestra of Brooklyn playing Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, and Barber’s Adagio for Strings, in a program that explores different approaches to grief.

Be sure to read our check out my Q&Acompanion interview with violinist Augusta McKay Lodge.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

Check Also

and Adam Cockerham, theorbo in the Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs with Voyage Sonique (photo credit: Kevin Condon)

Music Review: Voyage Sonique at the Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs (Brooklyn, 24 June 2019)

The Angel's Share live music series has been drawing adventurous listeners to the Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs for a couple of seasons now. It's no freak show.