The History of Brooklyn Through Music

03/26/2012 10:55 AM |

Artists rendering of the staging

  • Artist’s rendering of the staging

“It is music that can bring our community together,” Alan Pierson said from the podium on Saturday night. He meant not only our community of peoples across the borough, but of all Brooklynites across time. The Brooklyn Philharmonic music director introduced the evening’s program, Brooklyn Village, presented with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus at Roulette to a standing-room only crowd, as though it were the orchestra’s first in the mid 19th century; he concluded with a few lines by “Brooklyn’s greatest living poet—Walt Whitman.”

In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman famously wrote directly to us, to the generations hence, about “the similitudes of the past, and those of the future.” Saturday night’s brilliantly conceived program (by Pierson and Royce Vavrek) was a direct response back, an illustration of historical connection through music, drawing a throughline from Beethoven to the 33-year-old composer David T. Little, stopping along the way at 18th-century religious singing, Aaron Copland, and many local contemporary composers. It was like a time capsule flung back through the fourth dimension to hit Walt Whitman on the head—as if to declare, “this is us, Mr. Whitman. Do you really still recognize us?”

The evening began with the third movement of Beethoven’s Third; the Brooklyn Philharmonic is playing a movement from the work at every concert this season to connect the disparate communities in which they’re performed. It was the first piece the current Philharmonic’s predecessor performed in 1857, and thus a connection to the orchestra’s past; but as part of the program delving into the history of the borough—the programs were mock-ups of old Brooklyn Eagles, printed on newsprint—it felt out of place, and was quickly gotten out of the way. As at the last concert, the Phil’s Beethoven sounds brisk and spare—not thin, but sprightly, or airy, with Pierson wielding great dynamic control.

Rather than ending, the piece sort of petered out; this would be a recurring motif of the evening. The different works were stitched together with ambient noise, poetry and narration; the pieces flowed comfortably into one another, highlighting the flow of history, of generations into generations. A girl from the BYC spoke of her own Brooklyn history, of her grandfather’s visits to the HSBC bank that is now for her a Trader Joe’s. It led straight into the premiere of Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Here,” a choral work that blended traditional religious motifs with a strange dreamy sweetness that reminded me of Angelo Badalamenti’s work with Julee Cruise. That moved into the Prelude to Aaron Copland’s First Symphony, an eerie, drowsy blues, rich with the sounds of urban melancholy at evening. Matthew Mehlan’s “Canvas” took that aura of city sadness and added a layer of contemporary anxiety to it. For me, it was the highlight of the evening—stirring, intense, awesome. The sixth section of Sufjan Stevens’ The BQE ended the first half with a brash and celebratory finish.

Throughout, mood-setting projections (designed by Laurie Olinder) bathed the Roulette stage: brownstones, neon signs, images of Whitman and Copland, Francis Guy’s “Winter Scene in Brooklyn,” a representation of which stood in the lobby, and more. It was that painting that inspired Little’s centerpiece, AM I BORN, an epic and dramatic choral piece—led by the indomitable soprano Mellissa Hughes—spun off from Charles Wesley’s “Idumea,” a bluesy minor-key hymn, which the BYC lead in group singalong after intermission. (The piece was introduced by an actor playing a preacher, assembling us here to mourn the loss of St. Ann’s for the footprint of The Bridge; another actor argued with him about whether singing was the appropriate response, and stormed out. It was fun!) Little’s piece expanded on the work’s “am I born to die?” motif, underscoring the program’s major theme—mortality.

It fades out on a repeated phrase: “an intersection of times.” It was hard to walk out into Brooklyn afterward and see anything but palimpsest, a city thick with the ghosts not just of poets but of all Brooklynites. (Well, maybe not the Lenape.) Brooklyn Village was a people’s history of the borough in song. For such hyperlocal specificity, I’m really glad the Brooklyn Philharmonic exists.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart