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Photo Credit :: Jeff Day
Arts & Entertainment
Paul Winterís 26th Annual Winter Solstice
By Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
December 16, 2005 
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The shortest day plus the longest night equals the winter solstice (which this year, in New York, falls on December 21st, at 1:35 p.m). For the past twenty-five years, Paul Winterís Winter Solstice Celebration has celebrated this ancient rite (originally created to ensure the sunís return) at the worldís largest Gothic cathedral, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, with more than ten thousand people witnessing such theatrical effects as the sunís return in the form of the worldís largest tam-tam gong (seven feet in diameter), ascending, with its player, to the Cathedralís vaulted ceiling.

Or, in other words, before Kenny G., there was Paul Winter. Before CD101.9, there was Paul Winter. And where some might find blame, there is little doubt about Winterís ability to mesmerize his faithful audiences, for each year, Paul Winterís Winter Solstice Celebration is one of the holiday weekís top-grossing events, with the subsequent NPR broadcast one of the most popular program specials of the year.

This year, apart from the sun gong, and the gigantic Earth Ball traveling the Cathedralís 604-foot interior length and rising into the starlit nave, and the 28-foot tall spiral, rotating Christmas Tree of Sound with its bells, gongs, and chimes, there was also the Brazilian singer Renato Braz making his Winter Solstice debut. Fresh from his successful American debut at the Spoleto Festival in May 2004, Braz made his entrance into the darkened Cathedral in a floppy hat with a drum strapped around his waist, and as he made his way onto the stage, his ethereal voice conquered any skepticism about oneís position in the audience.

Born in Sao Paulo and singing since the age of five, Braz sings about Brazilian workers and their lives in the country, songs that speak to the heart (even when a listener is not remotely fluent in Portugese). And on Friday evening in the hush-dark of the Cathedral, Brazís clear tenor voice, with its angelic high registers, captivated the audience, and provided the perfect complement for Winterís haunting soprano saxophone. Together, Braz and Winter, with their respective instruments, made manifest the seasonís reflective spirit alongside its inherent yearning for renewal

There were also performances by the Cathedralís artists-in-residence dance troupe, the Forces of Nature Dance Theater Company, an African-American corps of eighteen, all of whom seem particularly gifted with the most fluent and flexible bodies, and also the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble, a group of Russian folk singers and dancers, known to many as the voices of the trademark theme of the television show Survivor, who, alas, on Friday evening looked as if they had wandered in from another stageset Ė perhaps a sequel to Waiting for Guffman set in a small town outside St. Petersburg. And also, for the first time in twenty years, Winter was joined by one of his Consortís original members, the double reed player/oboist, Paul McCandless, and their side-by-side triumphal procession down the Cathedralís 640-foot length was a testament to the power of music with an environmental and ecumenical bent.

Itís little wonder that Paul Winterís Winter Solstice Celebration continues to be the most popular secular event at the Cathedral, for once the sun has risen again high above the rapt audience, and this year with Renato Brazís ethereal voice still ringing in the ears, it is nothing to leave the great Cathedralís front entrance and glimpse snow and feel the cold. Nothing at all, for you have been warmed by the triumph of light over darkness.