Down a set of stairs beneath the Church of the Intercession is the setting for one of New York City’s most intimate concert series: a crypt. The underground space of vaulted stone, with a few cremation niches in the wall, is an overlooked architectural throwback. Constructed in the 1910s, it feels older, from its built-in altar to the Gothic style of its column supports and ornate chandeliers.
Andrew Ousley, curator of the Crypt Sessions, which are organized by Unison Media, first heard about the space from a friend who had seen Feist perform a private concert in the subterranean room at 155th Street and Broadway. “I went up to check it out and was smitten by the gloriously creepy and characterful nature of the space, and the utterly unique acoustics that manage to be rich and reverberant while still incredibly intimate and detailed,” Ousley told Hyperallergic. “I proposed a concert series to the Church, with all proceeds going to them, and they decided to give it a shot. Thirteen concerts later, we’re still going strong.”
The Crypt Sessions launched in 2015, with its first two seasons including moody concerts like Gregg Kallor’s composition inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and Elizabeth Cree, a murder mystery opera by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell. The intimacy of the crypt, which has seats for 50 people, is also an occasion for unconventional work. Pianist Conrad Tao performed his “American Rage” program that responds to the current climate with pieces based on Pete Seeger, Charles Ives, and protest songs, and cellist Matt Haimovitz, who has brought Bach’s suites to bars, clubs, and other alternative classical spaces, staged the solo works by candlelight.
Mostly recently, on September 27, pianist David Greilsammer performed “Labyrinth.” Before he started this program that explores “mysterious alleys of various enigmatic pieces” with selections from the early Baroque to the 21st century, he noted that the crypt invites the musician to be personally present. “We have lost our ability to be truly involved on stage,” he said of contemporary classical performance, which is often about perfection with a composition. “We totally take ourselves out of the equation … This kind of recital really allows one to speak his or her mind.”
As Greilsammer began the early 20th-century “On the Overgrown Path” by Leoš Janáček, the crisp sounds of the piano swelling through the stone room wrapped around the listeners. In “Labyrinth,” this deceptively complex piece is interrupted and cornered by fragments of J. J. Froberger’s appropriately titled 17th-century “Tombstone,” Mozart’s “Fantasy in C Minor,” Bach’s “Fantasy in F-Sharp Minor,” and contemporary composer Ofer Pelz’s “Repetition Blindness.” The disjointed collision of sound was disorienting, but richly textured, drawing connections across time. The piece culminates with Jean-Féry Rebel’s startlingly dissonant 18th-century “Chaos,” before winding back through all the pieces to the “Overgrown Path.”
The hour of music in the dimly illuminated place was transporting, and a demonstration of how sites of death can be cultural, community hubs, while respecting their sacred status. The next Crypt Session is November 15, with soprano Alyson Cambridge singing William Bolcom’s song cycle “From the Diary of Sally Hemings” based on imagined writing by the enslaved woman owned by Thomas Jefferson.
“I think it’s a very unique opportunity for the performers, as they have a chance to work with me to come up with a concert program that is tailored to this special space both musically and thematically, and as a result the experience tends to be a one-of-a-kind for both the musicians and the audience,” Ousley said. “Every artist we’ve had on the series has told me it ranks among their most memorable venues, and I think being in such close proximity to so small an audience makes the sense of communion that much more palpable.”
The next Crypt Sessions concert takes place on November 15, featuring soprano Alyson Cambridge in the crypt of the Church of the Intercession (West 155th and Broadway, Hamilton Heights, Manhattan).