Cathedral solstice celebrations

Paul Winter concerts mark the change of seasons
October 31, 2003

It was the dawn of the first day of summer, but no sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows of the cavernous cathedral.

The air was uncharacteristically cool and balmy for a late-June morning in New York, and the interior of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine was still damp and chilly when about 500 people sleepily shuffled in to celebrate the summer solstice.

For many, the early-morning -- or late-night-carrying-over-into-very-early-morning -- trek to the 4:30 a.m. concert was part of a yearly pilgrimage to begin summer with soprano saxophonist Paul Winter and his world-music ensemble.

"This is the sixth year that ... I attended a summer solstice concert," Massachusetts resident Julia Hathaway said. "It is so beautiful and special to watch the sun coming up in a darkened church, celebrating the season with people of all belief[s]."

The longest day of the year, June 21, was colder and darker than many of the repeat visitors had expected. But the sun's absence was easily forgotten when Winter and his six guest musicians began to play music that echoed to the farthest wall of the cathedral.

For 10 years, Winter has gathered a diverse group of musicians for his summer solstice concerts, one at sunrise and two more -- for those just can't rouse themselves for the predawn event -- at sunset.

Artistic freedom

That music has resonated for a decade of summers and twice that many winters in a tradition Winter established his first year as an artist-in-residence at the cathedral. In December, the Paul Winter Consort will perform its 24th consecutive winter solstice concerts, which are held at dusk.

The former bishop of New York, Paul Moore, invited Paul Winter and his consort -- the handful of musicians he often performs with -- to be the cathedral's musicians-in-residence. "I asked [him], 'What does it mean to be artists-in-residence?' and he said, 'It means you can do whatever you want," Winter said.

Winter searched for ecumenical celebrations as themes for his performances in an effort to draw people of different faiths to the cathedral. His first concert, one celebrating the first day of spring, "just sort of rang true," he said. "I never dreamed we'd be launching a tradition that would last a quarter of a century."

But for loyal attendees, the yearly concerts are as important harbingers of the seasons as the first dawn and the first sunset. "I am home" at Winter's solstice concert, Hathaway said. "I belong with all of these nuts who'll get up ... just to be there."

Winter's lilting sounds

This year's summer concert began in pitch-blackness, which accentuated the cathedral's enormity. Seven candles lit above and behind the altar provided no light -- evidenced by the occasional, accidental bump into a seatmate's arm.

One by one, tiny blue lights illuminated the musicians' music stands, and the sound of Winter's breathy, lilting soprano saxophone came from somewhere near the altar. The rich voice of guest singer Amina, who hails from Tunisia and specializes in Maghrebi music, joined from the back of the church. A cellist played a long note from the stage, located at the cathedral's ornately-carved marble altar.

In the darkness, 88-year-old Joe Grazzo whispered to his wife, Gloria: "It's an effort [to get up this early], but I'm glad we're here." The husky voice from the back of the church revealed its owner when Amina appeared -- in the predawn darkness, she seemed to materialize -- on the stage.

She reached her arms heavenward and began signing a mournful song in Tunisian. Her red, gauzy dress gracefully fell around her as her voice filled the church, which faintly smelled of incense and damp stone. The concert's setting was pure simplicity, unlike the one for winter solstice, which is more of a theatrical production with dancers and special stage lighting.

The unadorned altar and darkened cathedral distinguish the summer performance as "the most moving event I [do at the cathedral]," Winter said. "You have people sitting in total darkness, just listening, not knowing which corner of the cathedral sound is going to come from."

True to form, the hide-and-seek of sounds and sensations characterized this year's summer solstice concert.

Appearing from the darkened recesses in the front of the church, Winter joined Amina and his musicians onstage. The music's tempo quickened. The sleepy-eyed audience straightened, a few members glancing toward the stained-windows above the altar, searching in vain for the sun.

Throughout the two-hour performance, each musician highlight his or her talents and instrument. Although Amina was the featured performer -- her repertoire of songs punctuated at times by joyful African dancing -- each musician performed a solo.

Chris Berry and Jamey Haddad played drum sets and bongos. Berry also played the mibra, a small African instrument that makes the sound of stones plunking in the water. Jerry O'Sullivan played the Uilleann pipes, which are related to Irish bagpipes but are designed to highlight more expressive musical styles.

Paul Sullivan played the keyboard, and Eugene Friesen played the cello. Friesen's jazzy, upbeat solo was a clear favorite for both the audience and those onstage. Both percussionists moved their heads to the music, and Berry danced around the stage with a wide, joyful smile on his face. The celebration of music, of summer, had infected both the crowd and the performers.

"People experience [the performances] as something more than a concert or an art event," Winter said. "It's sort of a life happening."

Winter said the concerts are also special events for the performers. "Musicians love it when people listen, and there is a lot of listening at this event," he said. There's nothing to watch when it's totally dark, and [the audience is] there because they made a commitment to take part in this adventure at a time in the morning when people don't do much else but sleep."

Sleep is a luxury the musicians forfeit in preparation for the concert. Three days before the performance, they gather at Winter's Connecticut farm to discuss what they want to perform that weekend, meet the guest musician -- a new one each year -- and begin practicing.

"We're immersed in it," Winter said. There is something special about the predawn performance and the venue -- the world's largest Gothic cathedral, he said. "Gothic architecture awakens something in people, [something] spiritual, mysterious."

When he chooses guest musicians, Winter is confident that the cathedral will cast a spell on them as well. "It is a pretty magical place to invite somebody to come to," he said. "Usually people are quite knocked out when they come and realize how unique the experience is."

Spiritual experience

The same seems to be true for the audience, who return year after year to welcome summer. Some fall asleep midway through the concert; some listen, rapt; some sway to the music; all have an emotional reaction to the music.

Mary Lou O'Callahan of New Jersey, who has been making the trek to St. John's for five years, calls the concert "a happening and a very spiritual experience."

Matt Kaspar, also of New Jersey, said Winter's music "brings tears to my eyes." But Kaspar, experiencing his first solstice concert, said he wished he could have changed one thing.

"I wish I [had been] more awake," he said.