Holiday concerts hosted by pop stars are usually iffy affairs, useful at best as vehicles for nostalgia. But on the first of his two-night stand at Upper Manhattan’s majestic Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Sting deftly avoided standard, variety-show themes, eschewing flying reindeer, hanging mistletoe and flowing eggnog in favor of a program dedicated to the spirit of the season as it might’ve been celebrated centuries ago.
And what a welcome change of pace it was. While the one-time Police-man has shown a propensity for delving into such musicological matters with more than a hint of pretense, he led a large ensemble — one dominated by such traditional instruments as harp, pipes and melodeon — through a set of somewhat obscure titles in comfortable fashion, a la the choirmaster of a secluded rural church.
Much of the material presented was drawn from the Varese Sarabande album “If On a Winter’s Night,” which was released this week. While the grander pieces — like “Cold Song” and the medieval carol “Gabriel’s Message” — resonated most effectively through the eaves of the cathedral, Sting proved capable of generating a surprising intimacy as well, particularly on the sparse “Cherry Tree Carol.”
Sting proved an affable musical shepherd, ceding the spotlight readily — to fiddler Kathryn Tickell, who took a number of lovely solos, and to the Newark Boys Choir, a buoyant presence on “Coventry Carol.” When he did step into the spotlight, it was done with grace and a joviality not always present in his recorded work.
With its mix of Biblical and pre-Christian themes — and its blend of solemnity and frivolity — the performance offered a panoramic view of the season, one that didn’t so much generate warmth as celebrate the cold and the crunch of a fresh winter’s snow.