Review: In a Cemetery, Music Lives


If you get emotional listening to the noble melody and stirring words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” long the unofficial anthem of Black America, you may not mind hearing it three times over a couple of hours. The song is the through line connecting the disparate episodes of “To America,” a kind of nighttime musical walking tour of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and one of the precious few opportunities to experience live performance in New York City this pandemic fall.

Running through Saturday, it has been organized by Andrew Ousley, whose production company, Death of Classical, is no stranger to Green-Wood: Its series The Angel’s Share has for the past couple of years taken place in the cemetery’s eerily long, narrow, vaulted catacombs. (Mr. Ousley likes to wittily play on the cliché that classical music is dying; his other series is set in the crypt of a church in Upper Manhattan.)

As it happens, James Weldon Johnson, the remarkable educator, journalist, translator and activist who wrote the words of “Lift Every Voice” at the turn of the 20th century, is buried at Green-Wood. (His brother, John Rosamond Johnson, composed the music.) This has inspired Mr. Ousley and his collaborators, the Harlem Chamber Players, to create an evening-length work riffing on the anthem, race and history: of the cemetery, and of the United States.

It’s a tall order, and while we are still very much in the stage of the pandemic when any production, instrument or voice is inspiring, the result feels incomplete, even slight. Perhaps inevitably: “To America” is composed, after all, from fragments. Each small, masked, socially distanced audience pod — ticket times are staggered so that one of these groups departs every half-hour — moves through the winding, hilly paths with a tour guide, stopping six times for short concerts lit by electric tea candles.

The opening section, in the cemetery’s neo-Gothic chapel, was my first time hearing live music indoors since February. It’s a big, airy space, but even with the doors open and my group of about 20 people spread out widely, it was still a strangely unfamiliar experience to have someone sing to me without a mask on. This was the baritone Kenneth Overton, who gave a passionate rendition of H. Leslie Adams’s “Sence You Went Away,” a setting of a love poem by Johnson.

Mr. Overton was accompanied by a string quartet (Ashley Horne and Claire Chan, violins; Amadi Azikiwe, viola; Wayne Smith, cello) that also played Patrick Cannell’s instrumental arrangement of “Lift Every Voice” and Carlos Simon’s brooding “An Elegy: A Cry From the Grave,” dedicated to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and others “murdered wrongfully by an oppressive power.”

On a mild, misty night, walking though a softly illuminated, almost blurry Green-Wood, we then moved to the grave and statue of DeWitt Clinton, the New York governor largely responsible for the construction of the Erie Canal. This was the occasion for our guide describing the canal as both a route for escaping slaves and, paradoxically, as a conduit for products that drove the slave trade.

With the bass Paul Grosvenor singing “Deep River,” this was the most pointed moment of “To America,” when music, the cemetery’s holdings and our country’s conflicted racial past came powerfully together. But it wasn’t quite clear why we then visited the ornate mausoleum of Charlotte Canda, a teenage debutante who died in a carriage accident in 1845. Were we meant to contrast the extravagance of her grave with the modest stone for Margaret Pine, believed to be the last person to die enslaved in New York State?

In front of Canda’s grandeur, the cellist Robert Burkhart played Caroline Shaw’s flowing “in manus tuas” while the dancer Selina Hack artfully writhed. Near Pine’s resting place, we stood under a huge tree for as unusual a juxtaposition of arboreal songs as I can imagine: Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” (sung by Danielle Buonaiuto) and “Strange Fruit” (sung by Freddie June), both accompanied by the cellist Jules Biber.

By a hillside dotted with the graves of Civil War soldiers, a brass quintet (Dan Blankinship and Hugo Moreno, trumpets; Eric Davis, horn; Burt Mason, trombone; Marcus Rojas, tuba) played “Lift Every Voice,” the Chorale from George Walker’s “Music for Brass, Sacred and Profane” and Rob Booth’s rollicking arrangement of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” David Beck recited a Johnson poem, and the mezzo-soprano Lucy Dhegrae sang a quiet version of “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.” (I guess because Leonard Bernstein is also buried at Green-Wood? And, while I’m wondering, why didn’t we visit Johnson’s grave?)


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