The URL for Andrew Ousley's Crypt Sessions music series, which just wrapped up its second season, is "Deathofclassical.com", which can be taken both as a macabre joke or an aesthetic mission statement. To be sure, The Crypt Sessions, which take place underneath the gothic Church of the Intercession on 155th Street, is undeniably classical: past concerts this season have featured Bach's Goldberg Variations and Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ, alongside a healthy dose of new music.
But Andrew, who is by day a classical music publicist, takes square aim at the standard tropes of classical music presentation, peppering his previews with irreverent references to institutions like "The Metropolitan f-ing Opera", or exhorting that one of his concerts, "should be seized upon like a leopard seal seizes upon a slow-swimming penguin." When I arrived at the end of a long ride uptown on the C train, there was complementary food and wine in the 19th century cloister, which was filled with a healthy mix of stylish music fans from across the demographic spectrum. (The hors d'oeuvres' relationship to the music we were about to hear was lost on me, but they were tasty.)
After an hour or so, we were led out into the adjacent graveyard and down into the vaulted crypt beneath the church. (Yes, you could bring your wine with you.) The space was intimate, with room for only 50 or so people in between the pillars. A baby grand piano sat at one end, lit by burning candles that made the windowless stone-lined chamber feel warm and inviting. I don't know how Andrew found this place, but it seemed as if it had just been sitting there, waiting to be used for this very purpose.
(Photo: Andrew Ousley)
The real justification for the space became apparent the moment Daniela Mack opened her mouth to sing Britten's A Charm of Lullabies. I first heard Mack at the gala opening of last year's Mostly Mozart Festival, where she held her own alongside opera luminaries such as Matthew Polenzani and Christine Goerke. Here, Mack's penetrating mezzo boomed through the crypt as if there were a Marshall Stack hidden behind the piano. Mack, whose spring highlights included her Met Opera debut in Rusalka and Beethoven's 9th with the NY Phil, sang with a poise and composure well beyond her years.
Tenor Joseph Gaines followed with Poulenc's Tel jour telle nuit (in French) and Britten's Death Be Not Proud. Gaines voice was clear and emphatic, amplified by his personal charisma and obvious acting chops.
Accompanying both singers was composer Kevin Puts, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for his opera Silent Night. Puts is an impressive pianist for sure, but his real reason for being there was to preview excerpts from his new opera, Elizabeth Cree, which premieres at Opera Philadelphia this September. Set in London in the 1880s, the opera - which is based on Peter Ackroyd's 1997 novel - interweaves several gothic narratives, including a Jack the Ripper-style killer and the spirited world of an English music hall. Puts spoke with librettist Mark Campbell beforehand, discussing some of the challenges compressing Ackroyd's multi-layered novel into a chamber opera. (In addition to Elizabeth Cree, Campbell wrote the libretto to Mason Bates' highly anticipated new opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.)
Mack sang the title role, while Gaines sang the role of Dan Leno, an old-time Music Hall star. Their chemistry was infectious, and the ovation at the end well-deserved. No doubt I wasn't the only one in the room newly interested in making a trip to Philly this fall.
With so many producers rushing to fill bigger and more prominent stages, Ousley and the folks at The Crypt Sessions have learned that there's a special beauty in keeping things small. Though, if things keep heading in this direction, they might just need to build a bigger crypt.More pics on the photo page.