Billed as “a celebration of better times ahead”, Death of Classical’s presentation of Gil Shaham and The Knights playing a “Pocket Edition” of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at Green-Wood Cemetery strove for a festive feel, and did admirably at fulfilling that promise. One of the first large-scale ticketed classical music events in New York City since the pandemic, it took place on the evening of the day Governor Andrew Cuomo ended New York’s state of emergency. The weather and the setting were gorgeous, and both the music and the added attractions were extremely satisfying.

Green-Wood Cemetery
© Kevin Condon

Let me take a moment to applaud the idea of making one iconic classical piece the centerpiece of a larger event. It allows that piece to breathe in a way that would be impossible in a traditional concert; and of course it’s always a plus when the classical music world opens up its hermetic seal to let the rest of the world in.

The evening took place just inside the cemetery’s Gothic Revival gate, an imposing stone structure that looks as if (in my daughter’s words) “someone parked their cathedral in a bad neighborhood and everything but the front was stolen.” A portable stage was visible from ranks of folding chairs, or from the grave- and mausoleum-filled hills and lawns behind them. Those graves, along with the sight of the Freedom Tower through the gate, provided an undertone of memento mori to an evening whose more notable, cheerful features included two hours of free spirits tasting, food trucks, and an eight-piece swing band as an opening act.

In the interest of being able to actually remember the concert, I sampled the spirits only sparingly; I can report that the two bourbons I tried, by Basil Hayden’s and Cardinal Spirits, were both excellent. The swing band, called The Grand Street Stompers, played in a style more akin to Dixieland than big band, more 20s than 30s. The group was a lot of fun, while never quite catching fire; standouts to me were the clarinetist, Matt Soza, and the vocalist, Kim Hawkey, particularly in a solo that imitated the horn players. As in so many ad hoc outdoor venues, the amplification was uneven and troublesome; in their first set, the bass and trombone were far too loud and the drums barely audible. However, this was fixed during their second set.

Gil Shaham and The Knights
© Kevin Condon

Gil Shaham and The Knights were supposed to take the stage at dusk; a lengthy changeover delayed this somewhat. Before launching into the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Shaham played a diverting miniature for solo violin by Bill Bolcolm, Lenny in Spats, in honor of Leonard Bernstein, who is among the many notables buried in Green-Wood.

The Beethoven was presented in a “Pocket Edition,” arranged for flute, violin, cello and piano – an ensemble for which classical symphonies were often contemporaneously arranged for home use – plus soloist and timpani. The result was essentially chamber music, the dialectic of the concerto neatly subverted for much of piece.

Heavily amplified chamber music, that is. While the sound design was not problematic, as it had been earlier in the evening, it had a profound influence on the effect of the music. I might have had a different experience had I sat back on the hill instead of in the folding chairs, but what I heard was electric chamber music – in both senses of the word. This rendition of the concerto, amplified and without the reverberant wash of an auditorium, had the immediacy of a rock concert, each instrument having a visceral punch at loud volumes. Colin Jacobsen on violin, standing in for much of the original string section, was particularly ferocious. Yet all of the subtle elasticity of good chamber music was in evidence as well. And in certain places the reduction of forces made for heartbreaking beautiful moments, as when the tutti pizzicato passages were played by the violin and cello only.

Gil Shaham and The Knights
© Kevin Condon

Shaham played with an immaculate clarity throughout. During the ridiculously polyphonic first-movement cadenza (Kreisler’s), I felt I was being led step by step through a complicated but vitally important mathematical proof. There were flights of melodic fire, too, especially in the slow movement, although the balance with the ensemble was not as satisfying here. They needed to be louder to support the soloist effectively.

The 6/8 Rondo added a flavor of Riverdance-style fiddling to the innocent exuberance here. The movement kept its groove through numerous subtle tempo changes; when the final syncopated passage arrived, Shaham and The Knights charged through it to the final chords with unfettered glee, as if finally tasting freedom after too long locked down.


****1