By Cristina Schreil
“We’re looking for the event in the crypt,” I announced. “Where is the crypt?”
Four alarmed eyeballs stared back at me.
It was the second day of autumn and I was in a centuries-old New York City cemetery. One of the two maintenance men that I questioned gaped at my friend and me—like we had suddenly materialized amid the tombstones.
My friend Neil and I were in Sugar Hill, in upper Manhattan. A bastion of the Harlem renaissance, it contains charming buildings, old churches, and sprawling cemeteries housing such figures as Alexander Hamilton, Ralph Ellison, and John Jacob Astor IV. Despite the historical capital, these cemeteries are hardly tourist attractions, and our casual crypt search was clearly weird. After I explained we were looking for a classical concert—not an occult vampire society—they simply shrugged.
Neil and I backtracked and found our destination: the cloister garden of the Church of the Intercession. Of course, it was marked with a large sign. We were there to see cellist Matt Haimovitz perform the program of his latest album of old and new music, Overtures to Bach. The venue felt especially appropriate for Haimovitz, who is perhaps as known for performing in alternative spaces like coffee shops and night clubs as he is for his decades-deep investigation into Bach’s cello suites.
Inside the cloisters, the pre-concert reception invited us to take a look around. The surrounding hallways were topped with narrow-pointed arches in the Gothic Revival style. Wrought iron gates, some colonized by vines, barred openings to the tranquil garden. Small stone monsters perched above some openings outside. The mood grew cozier, and more macabre, at sunset. While admiring how the arches meet elegantly at corners, Neil stopped just short of disturbing a dangling spider web. “There are bungee-jumping spiders,” he said, shielding his wine.
I should add that tingeing everything was my terror of the supernatural. I fear ghosts and avoid cemeteries—I certainly don’t frequent crypts. Excellent, I could imagine my editor thinking, probably while petting a white cat. I have the perfect assignment.
Yet the mood seems a central draw to the Crypt Sessions concert series, organized by Unison Media. The semi-underground crypt chapel we waited to enter hosted several classical concerts in its first season. Adding to the allure was Haimovitz’s interesting program. After studying Bach’s cello suites for years—which included two strikingly different recordings—he commissioned six composers to each write an overture to a suite. They pay homage to Bach, but assert new perspectives, contemporary textures and influences, from Caribbean salsa to Serbian funereal chants to ancient Hawaiian rhythms and jazz.
As Haimovitz later told me in the church’s basement kitchen, next to a blackened stove, he’d never commissioned six works at once. “They were all coming in at the same time,” he said, painting a frantic process. “Bach I’ve lived with for over 30 years, so I now wanted to bring these new pieces up to that level of maturity.” The crypt concert was one of many presenting the commissions. In describing the project, Haimovitz likened the new music to a time-traveling bridge to Bach. It also revealed new hues of the cello. “With all the new music that I’ve done, with all the crossing over to other genres, I was still learning new things about the cello from these composers,” Haimovitz reflected. “That to me is kind of amazing after all these years.”
Back toward the start of the evening, organizers led us, now among a crowd, through a hall and out a back door. I realized we’d been herded straight into the dark cemetery. After a quick turn, I confronted broad stairs sloping down into the earth. Like Aladdin’s cave of wonders, the whole crypt chapel, ribbed with those same striking gothic arches as upstairs, emitted a pulsing glow. The source was a carpet of tea light candles and a ring of candlesticks surrounding Haimovitz’s chair. Unlike some concert spaces, this instantly tugged at all senses. There was the candle warmth, the heady scent of perfume, and light fixtures and odd shadows that compelled long looks.
Haimovitz soon entered, sat within the ring of fire, and began the first work, Overture by Philip Glass. The sheer force of the crypt’s acoustics instantly revealed themselves. Fruity bowstrokes and rustling tremolo phrases teased out of the lower string, all feeling cut from the same cloth of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, resonated to the tops of arches. When Haimovitz began the first Bach suite, there was a noticeable contrast in performing something he’s known for decades. More at ease, Haimovitz made sudden eye contact with audience members. With phrases ending on open strings, he gestured his left hand away from the fingerboard, letting the sound ring out and up.
Haimovitz performed each new piece and its corresponding Bach suite without pause, chatting comfortably between pairs as if by a campfire. “Welcome to our secret society,” he said, to laughs, after finishing the first set. “Our ‘Order of the Overtures.’” In these intervals, Haimovitz shared how the project came together. For one, he and composer David Sanford bonded over Korean food. He also divulged challenges. “I thought, this is impossible for cello,” he recalled of Vijay Iyer’s Run, a frenetic work rife with jazzy textures. The crowd-pleasing piece, incorporating cool left-handed pizzicato and beautiful harmonics, celebrates the corresponding Cello Suite No. 3’s use of the lowest string. Haimovitz prefaced La memoria, by Roberto Sierra, by explaining its juxtaposition between high and low art in Sierra’s native Puerto Rico. Musical hints of the fourth suite creep in.
At times, the crypt seemed to speak, too. The acoustics warped mechanical sounds seeping in from the street. Haimovitz would move his feet, rousing a raw scrape or tap from the stone floor. As if on cue, during The Veronica by Da Yun—which incorporates Eastern European fiddling and Russian Orthodox prayers for the dead—hunks of candle wax fell in plops.
During a wild and haunting passage in David Sanford’s Es War, I swore a breeze crept in from the right of the crypt. I looked around for explanations—an air conditioner or a fan—but found nothing. As the piece escalated, with wailing lines, it amplified the suspicion that Haimovitz’s audience was comprised of more than the living.
As if tapping into the evening’s Frankensteinian vibe, Haimovitz grabbed a curious instrument before the concert’s last two performances: a cello piccolo, which Bach called for in his last suite, No. 6 in D major. Emulating that theme of bridging time, Haimovitz shared that this was the very same three-quarter-size cello he used in his New York Philharmonic debut. It had since had “an operation.” The composer for that overture, Haimovitz’s wife Luna Pearl Woolf, initially turned him down due to scheduling conflicts. But when Haimovitz played the suite for her, she was intrigued by its unique string crossings. Lili’uokalani, named after the last Hawaiian princess, incorporates unused pieces of the opera Woolf was composing at the time. It was fascinating to hear a cello piccolo echo chants and beats forged in the Pacific.
After the concert, Haimovitz said he could hear a pin drop. “The candlelight and also the sound, sort of this unusual reverb of the arches and the intimacy, was perfect for solo cello.”
I also discovered that the spooky draft was simply an organizer cracking open a door. But somehow, it made more sense to imagine that the music, tying old with the new, stirred something much deeper.