Sting, Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York...
According to the Very Rev James Kowalski, dean of the cathedral, what we were about to see was not just another Christmas concert, but a spiritual awakening. Philippe Petit (of Man on Wire), a long-time friend of Sting and artist-in-residence at the cathedral, informed us that this was to be a journey in an upside-down ship. And some of the omens were promising: the sound quality was spot on; the lighting tinted the cathedral's gothic architecture blue. But something about the multiple large projections of Sting in the snow, accompanied by a husky, created a sense of foreboding.
The image was the cover of Sting's Christmas CD and DVD, recorded during a performance of the same concert in Durham earlier this year. The new persona of the former Police frontman is the learned mystic; he likes to tell tales of Britain in winter that feature ghosts, beheadings and poor children (the Newark choir, dressed in red bow-ties, looked distinctly incongruous). He has, he explained, recently rediscovered his roots; he, like four other members of his band, were "Geordie" (he pronounced the word as if it were from Tolkien).
The musicians on stage, brandishing fiddles and lutes and frozen smiles, did what they could with their Celtic material - but it proved hard to bring songs such as 'Soul Cakes' ("An apple, a pear, a plum and a cherry/Any little thing to make us merry") to life. Versions of 16th-century hymns by Robert Southwell and their Romantic imitations, even when introduced with an energetic "uh-one, uh-two, uh-one-two-three-four", swooshed towards the same destinations: apple-picking, pretty maidens, howling winds.
Nothing caused real offence - and nothing took flight either; it was hard not to feel weary after the drawn-out finale of four old English lullabies. An encore brought another one - dashing all our hopes for 'Englishman in New York'
© The Financial Times