Harlem Offers Classical Music in a Crypt

Harlem Offers Classical Music in a Crypt

When I was a young girl, my father, who was an inspiring woodwinds player, took me to classical concerts regularly. I remember squirming in my seat as I listened to Sir James Galway play flute sonatas counting down the minutes until my promised prize of ice cream was delivered for my compliance. My father—God bless him—never gave up on teaching me about the music of Vivaldi, Handel, Beethoven and Bach as well as Yanni (I know, I know), but it wasn’t until I reached adulthood and moved to NYC, that I truly appreciated the education my father gave me.

New York City gives visitors and locals alike the opportunity to really dive into the beauty of classical music year-round. From the iconic Lincoln Center to Carnegie Hall, there are numerous ways to break from the generic pop music saturation. But Uptown, something truly magical is happening in one of the most unlikely places—a crypt chapel at the Church of Intercession in Harlem. An award-winning concert series, aptly named The Crypt Sessions, features intimate performances by some of the world’s top classical music and opera stars. 

Each crypt session features a pre-concert reception included in the ticket price, with a tasting of food and wine that is paired with the theme of that evening’s music. I was invited by the event’s curator Andrew Ousley to hear the countertenor, John Holiday. Ousley’s passion for the series and its artists was infectious—during the outdoor reception he shared with me the evolution of The Crypt Sessions over the past three years and effused—with almost fatherly pride—about John Holiday’s versatile talent.

As the sun began to set, we were escorted past the church’s cemetery, down stone steps into a gothic-style crypt minimally decorated with a few ghost lights, a large Persian rug and seats facing a grand Yamaha piano centered under stone arches. Our pre-concert rambunctious energy shifted dramatically to reverence as we entered the sacred space. Regardless of creed, no one could deny the crypt’s sanctity and power: it filled the room and demanded respect. As a preacher’s kid, I was raised to enter such spaces with adoration, so in silence, I took my seat on the front row.

John Holiday The Crypt Sessions

The program was unlike any other classical concert I’d ever attended. John Holiday moved flawlessly through three different genres of music. He began the concert singing a baroque piece “Fronti Tenere e Belle...Ombra Mai Fu” from Handel, then onto pieces from Hahn and Debussy. The crypt’s acoustics transcended Holiday’s soprano range from virtuoso to ethereal as he performed chamber music from Theodore Morrison and Margaret Bonds, with Kevin J. Miller accompanying him on the piano.

Holiday concluded his concert with six jazz pieces including classics like “Summertime” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” He vocally relaxed into the music with ease, a versatility rarely seen in opera singers. Holiday was entertaining and charismatic as he interjected anecdotes between numbers; the hour-long concert seemed to have gone by in a blink.

The Crypt Sessions is like a secret club for classical music lovers, a little cultural oasis in Harlem. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience this evolving series. Due to rapid sell-outs and long waiting lists, each new concert is announced after the one preceding it, first to the mailing list, then via The Crypt Sessions website and Facebook page.

During the summer months, a new concert series called The Angel’s Share will be set in the Catacombs of The Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, presenting top-level opera and chamber music ensembles in a space that is normally closed to the public. Similar to The Crypt Sessions, a pre-reception at sunset overlooking the Manhattan skyline is included in the ticket price. 

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