Sting looked like quite the 19th-century Victorian gentleman when he performed a concert of winter songs at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on Tuesday night. He wore a long frock coat, a white shirt and an antique-style tie. Much of the music originated from even earlier times: 15th-century carols, songs from Purcell operas, traditional English ballads. Sometimes Sting played a lute.
But the concert, presenting music from Sting's latest album, 'If on a Winter's Night...' (Deutsche Grammophon), was no period piece, unless the period is the 21st century. It was a Sting hybrid with Celtic, pop, medieval, international and jazz touches, carefully thought out with no fear of pretension, yet full of small surprises.
When Sting set out to make a holiday album, he couldn't just, say, apply some semi-reggae Police beat to "Winter Wonderland." He got serious. As he explained onstage, in a very PBS introduction, he contemplated winter as "the ambiguous season" of bitter cold and cozy homes, of Christmas and solstice tales, of reverence and loneliness, of death and regeneration, of "magic."
He delved into European early music, old carols and lullabies, odd crannies of church music, Schubert's "Winterreise" and his own songs (to remake the melancholy 'The Hounds of Winter'). He added lyrics to a Bach cello sarabande. And he ended up with a collection of songs that was somber verging on bleak: winter with the King of Pain.
The faith in the carols was humble and awestruck, not celebratory. From the 16th-century poet Robert Southwell, Sting chose the grim imagery of 'The Burning Babe'; from Henry Purcell, whom Sting called "England's first pop star," he chose 'The Cold Song,' about an unwilling resurrection: "Let me freeze again to death!" He pointed out the dire lyrics of lullabies, and he found a 20th-century composer, Peter Warlock, who brought chromatic anxieties into worshipful songs.
Sting also thought about Newcastle, on the Scottish border, where he was born and raised, and he put traditionalist Newcastle musicians - the siblings Kathryn and Peter Tickell, on Northumbrian pipes and fiddles - at the core of his group. (They got to rev things up now and then, with dance-tune countermelodies and codas that accelerated into jigs.) And the stark minor modes of Celtic traditional songs ran through much of the music. Even the Schubert song, translated as 'Hurdy Gurdy Man,' grew folky, though no less burdened by mortality.
Yet Sting's musicians, including the Musica Aeterna chamber orchestra, hailed from at least five continents, and in arrangements by Sting and Robert Sadin, they blurred genres: the trumpeter Chris Botti invoked Miles Davis in 'Gabriel's Message,' and the percussionists Cyro Baptista, Bijan Chemirani and Bashiri Johnson added atmospheric sounds and syncopations in many songs.
Sting was testing himself musically: pushing his voice down into a sometimes uncomfortable lower register and, often, eliminating the rhythmic attack he brings to rock songs for something more liquid. It still wasn't a standard classical or early-music vocal style, though. It was Sting's smoky croon.
The cathedral was the right place for this concert, imposing a hushed attention. Somehow the sound system conquered the room's notorious reverberation, perhaps by keeping the volume low; instrumental nuances came through. So did a decidedly eccentric Christmas spirit: well traveled, erudite, confident and, in the end, deeply haunted.
© The New York Times by Jon Pareles