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Concert Review Cathedral sounds with Celtic flavor

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

7TH ANNUAL SUMMER SOLSTICE CELEBRATION, Paul Winter and others. At Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC. June 17.

Inside the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, a structure of enormous scale yet remarkable intimacy, 60-year-old soprano saxophonist Paul Winter led a seven-piece band in a continuous performance, interrupted only by intermission, that paid musical homage to the onset of summer and the longest day of the year (technically, June 20).

I’m sure there were some hardy, caffeine-fortified souls attending the sunrise concert at 4:30 a.m. that was taped for later radio broadcast nationally. At the second and last sunset performance, which drew a sizable audience, the musicians (by definition, nocturnal creatures) seemed well-rested and at ease in the near-spectral darkness broken only by a handful of overhead colored spotlights and the dim glow of backlit stained-glass windows.

This penumbral, peaceful atmosphere perfectly suited much of the music made this night. A former jazz musician, Winter played the soprano sax with lyric broadness incorporating quasi-classicism and world-beat overtones. There wasn’t much detail in his playing, but he created soundscapes succeeding more on emotional than strictly musicological terms. The excellent performers joining him helped to steer the concert clear of New Age kitsch and reach a level of substance usually absent in so-called ambient music.

Jerry O’Sullivan on whistle, uilleann pipes, and Scottish smallpipes, Zan McLeod on acoustic guitar, and Karan Casey on vocals represented the Celtic contingent, all of whom appeared with Winter on his Grammy-winning album "Celtic Solstice." Backed at one point by Jim Beard on electric keyboards and Dorothy Papadakos on cavern-filling cathedral organ, Casey’s singing of "The Song of Wandering ‘ngus" was exceptionally moving, and its reprise later in the program strengthened the connective tissue of the different musical pieces.

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She maintained the hushed mood of that Yeats’s classic with an equally tender rendition of "A Chomaraigh Aoibhinn Ó," a tribute to the Comeragh Mountains in Waterford, Casey’s home county. But she also injected a welcome tension into these generally tranquil proceedings with her version of Peggy Seeger’s "Song of Choice," inveighing against creeping indifference and the inertness it fosters.

There was also a tangy blend of O’Sullivan’s piping, McLeod’s guitar picking, Eliot Wadopian’s bass work, Eugene Friesen’s cello mastery, and the earthy Armenian sounds of Vardan Grigoryan on duduk and zurna (each a double-reed woodwind) and Arto Tuncboyaciyan on sazabo (long-necked plucked stringed instrument) and drum. In addition, Tuncboyaciyan played — yes, played — an enamel cooking pot, eliciting rhythm from finger taps and slow rubs, and his singing had a keening effect reminiscent of the qawwali vocals of the late great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Prerecorded sounds of whales and crickets also filtered into the concert, reinforcing the environmental streak in Winter’s music.

At the end of the evening, the saxophonist led O’Sullivan, McLeod, and other musicians in a loose-limbed musical procession, similar to that of a New Orleans jazz band, from the chancel to the cathedral entranceway. There, they played some dance tunes, including an Irish reel, and audience members did a few impromptu steps to the music.

Sometimes slipping into mere hodgepodge, other times shoving a bland aural background into the foreground, but more often providing an intriguing flow of distinct styles and sounds, this Celtic-flavored solstice celebration ushered in the season of sun and fun with something altogether rare: reverence.

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