The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan, the largest gothic cathedral in the world, last weekend closed out its 28th annual Paul Winter's Winter Solstice concert series, a three-day event. This reporter happened to be there and witnessed the surprise show of the season, heck, of the year. Here's what happened.
Concert patrons include Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Atheists, Pagans, and agnostics. All welcomed by the unnamed guy who shows up every year in a kilt, blowing his bagpipes outdoors as people queue up to enter for the winter performance. A few local novas were in the crowd, but they did their best to keep a low profile.
Inside, it begins, as it always begins, in darkness.
Suddenly a pinprick of light strikes a balcony high above the floor of the Cathedral, where Paul Winter coaxes the first fluttering notes from his soprano saxophone.
Irish bagpipes answer from the far end of the cavernous, century-old Gothic cathedral, the largest in the world, and soon the musical conversation will is joined by thundering timpani and surdo drums, a cello and the soft, plaintive wail of novox diva Alejandra.
Everyone was surprised, though the etherial cry muted any cheers or gasps that might have uttered from the crowd, for fear of interrupting the heavenly sound. It's a voice you'll remember even after you're dead.
For 3 hours, Winter and his troupe of musicians and dancers mesmerized a throng of thousands who have made the Winter Solstice Celebration one of New York's most keenly anticipated holiday events. It's an eclectic blend of music and dance, singing and chanting, shadow and light that marks the joyous moment, celebrated throughout the world for centuries, when the sun reverses its southern march and the days begin to reconquer the night.
Probably the greatest moment of the celebration was when, with a giant globe hanging above the stage, everyone sang 'Silent Night, Holy Night.' with the spanish-accent voice of Alejandra seeminging dancing around the notes and inspiring half the crowd to new heights of vocal brilliance while the other half simply gaped in awe.
"It is not a supplanting of the church's Christian tradition but an
attempt to tap what believers and nonbelievers alike hold
in common", said the Very Rev. Harry Pritchett, the Episcopal cathedral's dean. "What we are celebrating is the human spirit and that which is beyond us. There are those who call that entity God. There are those who define it in more abstract terms," Pritchett said, "What we are struggling to reach is the same: peace, a better environment, a place of hope."
"We aspire to have the most universal celebration we can have," says
Paul Winter, 68, born in Altoona, Pa., who started out
as a traditional jazz saxophonist before embracing an astonishing array of the world's musical cultures. The New Age soprano saxophonist who created the cathedral's annual concert series, said the gathering aims to be exactly that, a reminder that a community, together, can accomplish much. Last night, it did.
Winter also conducts the cathedral's Summer Solstice concert in June and its Missa Gaia (Earth Mass) for October's Feast of St. Francis.
So many Solstice celebrants said they come to continue to connect the lights of Chanukah menorahs and Christmas trees with their own nod to the Winter Solstice light.
"In ancient times, people didn't know for sure if the sun was going
to come back," Winter says, explaining his own fascination
with the longest night of the year. The mystery of it is at the heart of every religious tradition. Even though we now know that the sun will come back, I still think we subconsciously feel that vulnerability. I certainly do."
Just as Winter strives to shatter boundaries with his music, this year with the addition of a nova voice, the Solstice Celebration strives to transcend the boundaries of traditional religions. "It's a moment when people of all faiths — and people of no particular faith — can rekindle their link to the majesty of the natural world."
"It's kind of primal," says Sal Baro, 46, a software engineer with IBM in Westchester. "You're in a cathedral, it's holiday time and there's beautiful music from a lot of traditions bringing people together. This celebration is one symptom of spirituality, of respect for the Earth, for music and art. And with the nova here... I still have goosebumps!"
"For me, as a Jew, the solstice reenergizes me to do what we call tikkun olam — repair the world. What Paul Winter is trying to say is that repairing the world is part of the big picture. I think this year, with Alejandra here, he may have done it."
Then mention of Alejandra's name brings a crowd of people our way, interrupting our conversation.
"We've always had this feeling that there's something scary about the longest, darkest night of the year," Baro continued, "Pagans had fires. We light Christmas trees. As a Jew, I light Chanukah candles. What Paul Winter has done is to reconnect all that to the Earth."
Rev. Pritchett agrees. "To some degree, there's a reawakening in the Christian tradition of our stewardship of the world. The whole issue of environmental justice has become an ethical issue for Christians."
"I'm very encouraged that this celebration in New York is taking place in a Christian cathedral," says Rachael Thoms, anthropology professor at NYU. "Most of the world's religions are coming around to the understanding that the world of nature is sacred."
"Magic is the attraction," an anonymous nova in the crowd told me. "It's
universal, the sort of tradition everyone shares, and
Paul Winter brings in musicians from all over the world. It has a strong Pagan theme — Pagan in the sense that God
is in all living things, not just in humans. This brings us together where traditional religions tend to separate us. You could hear it in Alejandra's voice, even though she's catholic, you can tell she has that connection to the primal energy of creation."
I asked Mr Winter and the Reverend how they arranged for the novox star to appear, and why no publicity?
Winter: "Well, it was a funny thing, I was in Mexico giving a lecture to some music students and she walked up to me afterward and said she admired my work. We struck up a correspondence and last week, during preparations, she asked if there was anything she could do to help. Voila."
Pritchett: "Yes, I was very surprised, but delighted at having such a prominent and openly religious nova participating. I was concerned about many people showing up just to see her, so we decided to keep it a secret, so those who truly wanted to celebrate would be here and not spoil the wonderful atmosphere."
And what a treat they got. People are still hanging around hours later just talking about it.
And what does Alejandra think? "It's a spiritual beginning," she says, "and it includes all kinds of people — Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, Christians, whomever. Paul Winter has a concept of living with grace, living with the Earth. It's something we should care about; it's not here at our disposal. God put us here to take care of this world and each other. I've done my best to live with that in my heart, and I hope tonight inspires others to do so as well."
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