Music legend Paul Winter has played more than two thousand major concert venues in 52 countries and on six continents. His 45 albums have netted him seven Grammy Awards, and countless friendships and partnerships with amazing performers. Legendary folk musician Pete Seeger in fact won his very first Grammy for 1996’s Pete, produced by Winter.
Since 1980, Winter and the Paul Winter Consort have also been artists-in-residence at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, putting on more than one hundred performances which include his now famous Winter Solstice Celebration that includes international musicians, dancers, and performing artists from many disparate traditions.
This year, such traditions include the Pletenitsa Balkan Choir directed by Christiane Karam, gospel singer Theresa Thomason, and the more than two-down dancers and drummers of the Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, directed by Abdel Salaam. All this in addition to the now traditional Consort, the cathedral’s own immense pipe organ, and the ceremonial raising of an enormous, seven-foot sun gong.
Ahead of this season’s Solstice Celebration, Winter was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss the coming festivities.
This is going to be your 38th year performing in the Solstice Celebration. How important is it for you to balance things that have become tradition for you and things that are more innovative year-to-year?
Tradition is at the heart of Solstice. It’s probably the oldest ritual tradition of humanity in the northern hemisphere, going back to millennia, and we interweave the traditional aspects with our own ongoing adventures exploring the world. Solstice for me has always been a gateway to embrace the world again, and keep learning about the different cultures and different creatures. The thing that always wells up for me in playing the Solstice event is a sense of relatedness to this family of life.
How far along are you in preparing for these performances? It must take months and months out of the year to set up.
It does. We are in high gear right now. I begin gathering ideas in January and keep it going throughout the year, but we are in working on new compositions now and rehearsals and leading the program. We have about six weeks to go.
Can you tell us a little about the older elements involved? The types of performances, the Sun Gong that you raise every year, and the cathedral’s Organ is a half a century old, isn’t it?
I would think so, right. It’s certainly the oldest instrument that we are using and it’s a titanic organ. The Sun Gong — which we’ve had for about twenty years and which ascends with its player to the vault of the Cathedral at the symbolic moment of the return of the sun — is something that has become an integral part. There is an Earth ball that we have. It’s a nine-foot Earth ball that travels through the Cathedral and at the stage is hooked to a cable rig to the vault of the Cathedral and it rises, spinning slowly throughout that suite of music.
A newer element of these different theatrical effects is our Solstice Tree of Sound. Which is a twenty-eight-spiral aluminum sculpture that’s hung with hundreds of bells and gongs and chimes, symbolizing the diversity of life on earth.
Another of the new dimensions this year is an extraordinary choir from Boston The Pletenitsa Choir. Fifteen singers — thirteen women, two men — sing in a tradition of choral music from Bulgaria that I have loved for fifty years since I first heard in the early sixties an amazing album The music of Bulgaria The Philip Koutev Ensemble who was a man who was a great calla ranger who brought in singers from the country side and wove this particular kind of intense outdoor singing into coral music and I always dreamed of having a choir like that in the Solstice event because the Cathedral is so big that it is almost like being outside I mean you sit there and if the lighting is somewhat dim you can’t even see the ceiling. It’s as close as to an outdoor performance an indoor place that I know. You need to have voices that project in this space of the Cathedral. I mean yes we use a sound system but sometimes we like to have people sing and play acoustically and this tradition comes from outdoor singing and I think it’s going to be a great new musical revelation to have them apart the event to share.
You’ve played the Hudson Valley and Westchester many times before, perhaps most notably with Pete Seeger. You’ve been to his barn in Beacon and his Litchfield properties in Connecticut; you’ve played the Clearwater Hudson River Revival festival. Is there anything you especially like about the atmosphere of this region? Is there anything symbolic to the nature of the place?
I’ve always associated the Hudson Valley with a great deal of tradition, and the first events that we’ve played. The first, Hudson River Revival they called it in I think ’79, was very much about reviving those traditions. That was during a time when the folk traditions of this country were being rediscovered and championed very much of course by Pete and the people involved in the Clearwater.
It’s always been a magical area for me, kind of like the old tradition of a student making a pilgrimage to the mountain to see the guru — that is what it was for me going over to Beacon to see Pete, and going up that dreaded four-wheel drive dirt road to his cabin with that beautiful panorama view of the Hudson. It was a ‘beacon,’ that was the right word for that place and for me. He was someone who really guided me in the wings. To just have known him, to occasionally see him and sometimes get to do projects with him. He was certainly as inspiring a mentor as I’ve ever had.
What would you hope that celebrants who come to the Solstice Celebration bring back with them when they return, be that our area or wherever home is for them?
Well Solstice to me is a time for reflecting on a year that has passed with its blessings and trials and a time for renewing our dreams for the year that lies ahead. I hope people come home with hopefully a feeling of fullness and a sense of feeling of relatedness to the larger family of life and perhaps the cosmos to and to feel gratitude for the miracle of life and for this land where we are lucky enough to live.
Paul Winter’s 38th Annual Winter Solstice Celebration performances will be held on Thursday and Friday, December 14 and 15 at 8 p.m., and twice on Saturday, December 16 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available here.
Paul Winter’s 38th Annual Winter Solstice Celebration
Cathedral of St. John the Divine
1047 Amsterdam Ave., New York City
Thursday, December 14 8 p.m.
Friday, December 15 8 p.m.
Saturday, December 16 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.