Sting avoided standard themes in favor of a program dedicated to the spirit of the season.
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.