Elizabeth Bryson, for
Photograph (c) Express Image Photography
The Paul Winter Consort has been performing Winter Solstice concerts at the magnificent Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City since 1980. This 37th annual celebration was titled ‘Bring Home the Sun’. This particular review encompasses the evening concerts of 16 and 17 December, 2016.
The concert began with Paul Winter standing high up in a rear alcove of the cathedral with a spotlight on him as he played a plaintive solo melody on his soprano sax. This striking and moving opening set the tone for what would be a remarkable musical and visual experience.
Gary Brooker was the special guest for this particular Winter Solstice concert. He came out early in the concert and performed A Salty Dog, accompanied by the wonderful Paul Winter Consort musicians. As the resonance in this cathedral is already quite expansive, hearing the addition of Gary’s soulful resonant voice in this sumptuous aural setting was exhilarating. Following A Salty Dog was An Old English Dream – with a humorous introduction by Gary both evenings referring to Stonehenge and the winter solstice ‘… If I was in England I’d be at Stonehenge now with three blankets on my head … and a pipe …’; the following evening ‘… one day the stones will rise and they’ll put a roof on it … and call it Trump Towers …’. The song was again performed with the Consort and towards the end Paul Winter offered up a brief but exquisite interlude (on his soprano sax) of Elgar’s richly melodic Nimrod from The Enigma Variations.
In addition to some amazing music throughout the evening the audience was also treated to The Forces of Nature Dance Theatre – wonderfully gifted dancers and percussionists. They made their first appearance coming up the centre aisle of the cathedral. The percussionists were wheeled in on top of a steel-framed cart and the dancers followed in vibrantly colored West African garb, dancing to the powerful rhythms provided by the percussionists.
Paul Winter offered periodic commentary throughout the evening and talked at various times about George Martin, to whom the concert was dedicated. The first Winter Solstice concert took place very shortly after John Lennon was murdered in New York in December of 1980. Paul Winter referenced this and Gary Brooker’s friendship with John Lennon before again introducing Gary, who performed the Beatles’ In My Life. His vocal was straightforward and somewhat wistful. During the Saturday evening performance Gary sang the first line of Hey Jude at the conclusion of the song, repeating a second time, ‘make it better’.
Another member of the Paul Winter Consort was the gospel singer, Theresa Thomason. Her voice was captivatingly pure, versatile, beautifully soulful and dynamic. She was greeted with very enthusiastic rounds of applause after nearly every song she sang. One particular song (which was performed in the second half of the concert), The Silence of a Candle (written by Ralph Towner, from the George Martin-produced album Icarus) was especially moving.
The final musical selection before intermission was the Paul Winter Consort’s mesmerising and strikingly visual performance of Journey through the Longest Night. This particular piece incorporated a giant ‘sun’ prop that was wheeled down the centre aisle and eventually rose higher and higher into the rafters, subsequently being joined by Scott Sloan adding rhythmic enhancement with the massive sun gong.
Early in the second half of the concert Gary Brooker returned to the stage to perform Conquistador with Paul Winter playing the original trumpet part on soprano sax. This time, along with the accompaniment of the Consort, the Forces of Nature dance troupe also returned. Not long into the song they took to the stage in fringe and bell bottoms and danced in vibrantly-choreographed synchrony around Gary and his piano. Once again, Gary’s vocal was very strong, as were the dancers. The Forces of Nature Dance Theatre would take the stage at various other times during the second half of the programme – right until the very last notes of music were played. Their talent and energy cannot be over-emphasised.
Each musician in the Paul Winter Consort had virtuosic technique. The long-time ’cellist with the Consort, Eugene Friesen, as well as keyboardist Paul Sullivan, were particularly notable in their individual solo spots as well as in accompaniment.
As the show moved towards the end, Paul Winter again introduced Gary Brooker to the stage. After a brief chamber orchestral introduction Gary followed, with piano, and sang A Whiter Shade of Pale. The song was greeted with enthusiastic appreciation and, at the conclusion, rapturous applause. Among many highlights of the concert, this was surely one of the ones most embraced by the audience.
Drawing to a close, all members of the evening’s programme gradually took to the stage. Gary Brooker and Theresa Thomason sang Silent Night as well as Auld Lang Syne (in the latter Gary encouraged the audience by gesturing several times to join in the singing). In keeping with the majestic and inspired staging, an imposing metal (or that’s what it looked like) Christmas tree decorated with various gongs, chimes and other percussive instruments was wheeled to a prominent place on stage.
As with the ‘sun’ prop making a dramatic appearance at the end of the first part of the programme. An ‘Earth’ prop was wheeled in up the centre aisle in similar fashion to also rise to the rafters. When it arrived at the top, the lights were dimmed and Paul Winter encouraged the audience to sing a ‘Howl-alujah’ chorus. There was a loud response of howling and baying – eerie and humorous at the same time!
The singing and dancing continued as the audience exited the cathedral. Gary danced around the Christmas tree of percussion with various members of the dance troupe. It was a brilliant artistic night embracing spirituality, thought and optimism. This was an experience that left a large majority of the audience leaving the cathedral with a smile on their faces – quite appropriate.
Procol dates in 2016 | More about these shows