Just another reason we love to live in New York: easy access to unusual, live music. Saturday night I ambled through Christmas tree vendors ($35 a tree, any size, at Christopher St.) to St. Luke in the Fields, to hear some seasonal music.
There is no shortage of holiday music, to be sure. The city offers everything from the New York Philharmonic and The Nutcracker to Chanukah music alternating with “An Irish Christmas” at Joe’s Pub. But when the Western Wind vocal ensemble takes the stage (altar) to offer up Holiday Light: Joyous Music of Chanukkah and Christmas, you understand this will be something else again.
The two sopranos, two tenors, a countertenor and a baritone fill the little Village church with measured and subtle harmonies in an eclectic program designed to mix sacred music with some contemporary pieces. Most of the program is a capella, though there is periodic support from Patricia Davis, with an assertive and lively violin, and from Will Holshouser, with accordion. Elliot Z. Levine, the baritone, adds his guitar. What’s more, the other singers step up with cameos on castanets, a small drum and—oh!—bells . . . because you must have bells this time of year!
Levine and the countertenor, William Zukof, are founding members of the Western Wind which dates to 1969. Levine, a sometime cantor, is the center of the group. His voice, for all its power, never overwhelms; it is instead a reassuring constant in the roller coaster ride that this program demands. Zukof’s sweet countertenor sound disarms us. Add to that, he has the showman’s gift of reading the moment; by the intermission he has trained the audience to look to him for a smile. Todd Frizzell and David Vanderwal duel companionably in the tenor space. Frizzell is a member of the Choir of St. Luke in the Fields. He is the most animated of the performers, perhaps owing to that “home court advantage.”
Sopranos Linda Lee Jones and Michele Kennedy round out the ensemble. Kennedy backs up a warm and powerful voice with versatility; you have the sense she could sing anything. Jones has a big, full voice that demands your attention. It may just be me, but I kept getting the suggestion of diva from each of them. At the very least, they seemed more competitive than harmonious, which may just be in the soprano DNA.
Unlike the vaulted Cathedral of St. John the Devine or the even more-perfect Medieval Gallery of the Metropolitan Museum—each used for grand musical performances this time of year—St. Luke in the Fields is a small, wooden church in Greenwich Village. What the venue lacks in grandeur it makes up for with a good acoustical balance and an inviting scale. The opportunity to sit in a small, gracious room and listen to beautiful, polished voices, singing without amplification, is very special, and increasingly rare.
I’ve not said much about the terrific program because, while terrific, it was a one-off. They mixed obscure, at least to me, Christmas music from “V. of a Rose” sung in Medieval German and “Tsindt on Lichtelech” sung in traditional Yiddish, with more contemporary pieces like “Chanuka in Santa Monica.” Some was pin-drop perfection; some was laugh-out-loud funny.
So, when you are looking for something charming and classy on a human scale, see if the Western Wind is in town.
Holiday Light: Joyous Music of Chanukkah and Christmas
WITH: Linda Lee Jones (soprano), Michele Kennedy (soprano), William Zukof (countertenor), Todd Frizzell (tenor), David Vanderwal (tenor), Elliot Z. Levine (baritone, guitar), Patricia Davis (violin) and Will Holshouser (accordion).
Presented by The Western Wind Vocal Ensemble at Saint Luke in the Fields, 487 Hudson Street, Manhattan. Running time:1hour 45 minutes with intermission.