Philly Fringe Fest returns to Laurel Hill Cemetery with ‘Concert Atop the Crypts’ and ‘Graveyard Cabaret’

Internationally-known thereminist Mano Divina isn’t exactly bringing something new to this year’s Philly Fringe Festival – but he can practically guarantee you’ve never heard it before. When you add the mournful, mysterious sound of his electronic theremin to a nine-piece string orchestra performing music that was never intended for a living audience, you’ve got quite a musical event, even by the wacky standards of the Fringe.

Did he mention it’s all taking place in a graveyard?

This weekend, Divina’s Divine Hand Ensemble presents “Music for the Hearing Eye: Concert Atop the Crypts” at Laurel Hill Cemetery in East Falls. 

Divina, a master of ten different instruments, says he is the only thereminist in the world who performs classical music. He’s sorry that his instrument isn’t better known to the public. Invented almost a century ago by Leon Theremin, a Russian professor, the theremin is the only instrument in the world that is played without being touched. It’s a wooden box whose two metal antennas form electronic “capacitor” circuits between the instrument and the artist’s hands. With virtuosic subtlety and control, the player’s hands are positioned in the air, and their changing proximity to the antennas controls the pitch and volume of the theremin’s tone.

A Philadelphia native who toured throughout Europe before bringing his music back to his hometown, Divina took advantage of Philadelphia’s wealth of fine musicians when founding his Divine Hand Ensemble here. Anchored by the unusual theremin, the group includes a four-piece string section, two classic harps, a classical guitar, a vibraphone and a marimba.

“Our group specializes in really powerful, beautiful and moving music,” Divina says. Their range is impressive: Mozart, Bach and Beethoven are performed alongside everything from classic rock to opera arias to movie themes from composer Danny Elfman.

“I have the skill of being able to imitate a [human] voice with the electric current of my theremin,” Divina says, calling the sound of his arias “singing electricity.”

The ‘lost art of funerary music’ 

For the first act of their first official Fringe show, they’ll be performing their regular classical repertoire. But the music following intermission is the real reason the group received an invitation to mount a show at Laurel Hill.

“One of the things we specialize in is the lost art of funerary music,” Divina says.

According to Divina, funerary music was developed in sixteenth-century Europe. The veracity of the history of “funerary music” is a controversial topic, but Divina says that funerary music was composed and performed solely for the dead, until it all but disappeared in the nineteenth century. These musicians, refusing to play their tunes for the living, would spend their nights performing in graveyards.

“Their concept was to perform pieces on the violin to help the soul of the deceased realize it was dead, and send it on its way to the afterlife,” Divina explains. He claims that the music of the Laurel Hill performance came from “digging through years of archives” at the Vatican, which apparently buried the genre when a nineteenth-century pope outlawed it as an illegal attempt by men to intercede with God on behalf of their fellows.

Whether or not funerary music has a legitimate history, the performance promises to be an interesting one.

A Graveyard Cabaret

The Divine Hand Ensemble members aren’t the only ones taking to Laurel Hill this year. On the Fringe’s final weekend, the New York City-based REV Theatre Company will present No Rest For The Wicked: A Graveyard Cabaret.

According to cabaret creator and performer Rudy Caporaso, who is also REV’s Co-Artistic Director, this lavishly costumed musical mash-up brings three “lost souls” out of the mists of the graveyard just after sunset. With the accompaniment of a concert pianist, songs from the Scissor Sisters, Cab Calloway, Nirvana and more will explore “many tales of death from many different perspectives.”

“It will be death-centric, mind you,” Caporaso notes, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely “sad and depressing and dire.” The show will also incorporate a lot of unexpected humor in what he calls “the vast dead beauty of Laurel Hill.”

“We’re a theater company committed to unique alternative spaces,” Caporaso says of the company, which specializes in classics with a contemporary twist. “I love theater, but a real turn-off for me is theater only being done in theaters. I’m always looking for the kink.”

Mounting a show in a graveyard (not their first at Laurel Hill – last year’s Fringe saw REV’s “Carthaginians” successfully staged among the tombs) qualifies as the kind of unexpected yet accessible performance Caporaso craves. “I’d love to do a theater piece in Acme,” he says.

He’s pleased that their genre-defying performance is categorized as a “Happening” in the Fringe catalogue, rather than a simple musical or dramatic performance. Given the ghoulish setting, he recommends “entering into the spirit of things.”

Performances to remember 

“Even if you’ve never seen a theremin, you can close your eyes and be swept away with the beauty of the music,” Divina says of his own performance. “Then you can open your eyes and say, wow, I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“I’ve not experienced anything like this so far in my lifetime,” Caporaso counters for “No Rest For The Wicked.” The evening will be “engaging, fun, moving, and something you’ll be able to talk about afterwards.”

Mano Divina and the Divine Hand Ensemble will take to the graves on Sept. 8 at 6 p.m., with a rain date of Sept. 15. Beer, wine and refreshments are included in the $25 ticket price. REV Theatre Company‘s graveyard cabaret, $20, will run on Sept. 20, 21 and 22. The night begins with complimentary cocktails at 7:15 p.m., and the show begins at 8 p.m. Attendees of both shows should bring their own blankets and chairs, and tickets are available through the Fringe Festival website.

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