The great and powerful St. John the Divine on the upper west side enjoys a reputation for being the church for all people. Each year, thousands come to pay homage to the largest cathedral in the world. How fitting that on a true global holiday: the winter solstice, the Paul Winter Consort brings its inspirational world music to the place that welcomes peoples from every walk of life.
Theresa Thomason (Photo by Noah Butler)
This past weekend, every inch of the immense structure was filled with voice, dance, bells, gongs, accompanied by cello, saxophone, drums and piano as the longest night of the year was celebrated with great fanfare. The Paul Winter Consort, now in its 50th year, has been performing its winter celebration at St. John the Divine for almost as long. As he writes in the program, “When we presented our original ‘Winter Consort Winter Solstice Whole Earth Christmas Celebration’ in December of 1980, we assumed it would be a one-time event.” By the size of the crowds, the event is a much beloved holiday tradition, almost forty years later.
The show opens with a darkened cathedral, and the calls of instruments from one end to another as if signaling that something of significance is about to begin. Paul Winter emerges from the shadows with his trademark saxophone, looking very much like Father Winter in his white hair and suit. Equally as powerful as the cathedral is the voice of Theresa Thomason, a gospel singer who joins the Consort for these solstice performances and brings a spiritual touch to the longest night of the year.
Forces of Nature Drummers (Photos by Matthew Muise)
The Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, under the direction of Abdel R. Salaam, pounds the stage with blends of modern dance, and traditional and neo-African routines. With looping animal noises, calls from birds, crickets in the night, we are immersed in the Amazon rain forest in a welcoming winter performance. In one dramatic moment, an enormous illuminated gong rises up along the back wall of the cathedral as the great organ heralds the return of the sun, symbolizing the gradual lengthening of the day. The sounds of the 8,500 pipe organ are strong enough to vibrate the floor, creating a crescendo as powerful as nature itself.
Solstice Tree (Photos by Cliff Sobel)
The Solstice Tree, inspired by the mythic traditions, appears on stage adorned with bells and gongs to symbolize the many cultures on the planet, and the “great symphony that is earth.” There are not many performance spaces that could do justice to an event such as this. Winter has said of this Solstice performance, that “Of all the places I’ve played in the world, only two could host an event on this scale: the Cathedral and the Grand Canyon.” Imagine that!
The Cathedral, which dates back to 1892, seeks to fulfill its mission of being “a house of prayer for all people and a unifying center of intellectual light and leadership.”
Top photo credit: Kay Friday