On Saturday, June 22 right between the summer solstice and the much anticipated supermoon, Laurel Hill Cemetery hosted a concert atop the crypts presented by the Divine Hand Ensemble. This nine-piece group is centered around Mano Divina – professional concert theraminist – who wields the world’s oldest electronic instrument to perform a mix of classical compositions, chamber music, opera arias and even more contemporary musical renditions. A show of local Philadelphia artists displayed adjacent to the performance space provided additional visual feasts for those in attendance.
A crowd of picnickers and music lovers descended upon the hallowed ground of the graveyard shortly before dusk as the harps, violins and cellos tuned in the sultry June air. The Divine Hand, of course, refers to how the theremin is played: without touching it. Centered in the middle arch of the Benson Mausoleum on Millionaire’s Row, the theremin rested silently prior to the show. Once brought to life, Divina uses delicate and highly specific gestures to interrupt the electrical field around the instrument, allowing him to manipulate the frequency of the sound emitted. The result is a haunting tone that varies between the sound of an electronic synthesizer and a human voice. Upon touching the metal bars extending from the box, the theremin immediately becomes quiet.
Chirping birds headed to their roosts for the night passed by bats emerging from their slumber, flitting overhead as the show began. With an ambiance somewhere between summertime repose and reverence for the dead who graciously shared the space with concertgoers, the cemetery provided a more-than-ideal locale for the percussion and strings of the ensemble. At the start, the Divine Hand commenced with a variety of classical pieces amplified both electronically and with a little help from the surrounding stone monuments.
As Mano Divina introduced performers and songs alike, the music gradually made its way into a more contemporary realm. This turn of affairs met the assembled (breathing) audience with such titles as the theme from 1970s’ “A Love Story,” as well as the highly apropos “Who Wants to Live Forever?” by Queen, and even a touch of prog-rock, courtesy of Rush.
The first act finished, and after a brief intermission, the second half got underway just as dusk was taking hold. In the dimming sunlight and fresh glow of the bright moon, funerary music seized the atmosphere. Divina explained that this segment was dedicated to the deceased and to those among us who had recently lost someone close to us. Funerary music has always been a part of human society since as far back as history can trace. In the 1500s, funerary violin music was created with the intention of ushering the recently passed into the afterlife; it was not meant to be heard or played for the living.
Exhuming this lost art form for a more receptive live audience, the Divine Hand took on a more somber mood around this time. A culmination of the event found funerary violinist and vocalist Monique Canniere atop the mausoleum, bathed in a spotlight just as the sun faded away. Her solo performance resonated both aurally and emotionally through the gathering as a fitting adieu to both spectators and the entombed.
Divine Hand Ensemble is a stirring and sensual thrill for those who have never witnessed their concerts and even for those who have heard them time and again. From the airy strings of their violas to the unreal utterances of Mano Divina’s theremin, the Divine Hand Ensemble is a spectacle that everyone should make the time to savor. For updates, follow the Divine Hand on Facebook or visit their website at divinehand.net.
Laurel Hill Cemetery is located at 3822 Ridge Ave., Philadelphia; 215-228-8200; thelaurelhillcemetery.org.