Paul Winter Consort Rings in the Solstice

Before diversity became a buzzword, the composer's `world music' tapped into many cultures and rituals

`IF we have 3,000 people there, I'd be happy to have 3,000 different interpretations of the music,'' Paul Winter says. The musician and composer is putting the finishing touches on plans for his Winter Solstice Concert, an annual event that has become a year-end tradition for New Yorkers, and for a growing radio audience.

Each December, the Paul Winter Consort, his eight-member ensemble of musicians, takes over the cavernous Cathedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan to commemorate the changing of the seasons, when the Earth's longest nights of the year signal the beginning of winter.

These highly anticipated series of concerts are ``a kind of summing up of the year,'' Winter says. They meld the regular segments of his program with musicians and melodies that he and the consort have discovered during the past 12 months.

The consort consists of Winter's soprano saxophone as well as seven other musicians playing piano, organ, cello, bass timpani, drums, and other instruments. For four performances, beginning today, a total of nearly 12,000 people will sit quietly in the dark as the roll of drums and the ringing of bells slowly builds into an explosion of acoustic music, inaugurating another solstice celebration fashioned from Paul Winter's mission of ``sharing the core experience of grounding or reconnecting that people get from listening.'' Guest musicians

Winter's travels to explore the music and cultures of the world have introduced the consort to a diversity of performers, some of which are invited back to the cathedral concerts. This year, they include the 11-member Dimitri Pokrovsky Singers from Russia, who are credited with the rebirth of the modern folk movement in that country. An authority on traditional Celtic music, soprano Noirin Ni Riain, joins the festivities from her home in County Limerick, Ireland. And this year for the first time, singer-songwriter Gordon Bok, called ``the bard of Maine,'' will contribute songs of the sea to the program.

Woven throughout the evening are dramatic musical elements that fill the enormous space, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, as Winter takes the audience on a symbolic journey through the longest night of the year. The consort serenades a giant Earth ball as it snakes its way through the aisles, rising and careening around the 804-foot interior, dancing and bouncing to the beat. Exhorting the participants to challenge the darkness, the musicians lead the audience in a round of wolf howls.

A 28-foot ``world tree'' made from cloth and rope is pulled down the nave aisle as a drum housed in its truck is beaten. And the return of the sun is depicted by the ringing of the world's largest tam-tam gong, measuring 7 feet in diameter, played by a musician in a bosun's chair balancing near the zenith of the cathedral's 100-foot-high ceiling. These rituals are laced into the evening's music to create a holiday festival that, for many, supplements or replaces religious ceremonies. And familiar church customs, such as the lighting of the Christmas tree or Hanukkah candles, trace back to the beckoning of light in the dead of winter, which the solstice event commemorates.

``It is the joy of celebration and community'' that lures audiences back year after year, Winter says. ``The greatest contribution I think we can offer is the opportunity to give people a deep listening experience.''

Winter has been offering such experiences to audiences during his entire career. As a child growing up in the 1940s in small-town Pennsylvania, Winter played in marching bands, took piano lessons with his sister, and listened to the radio. ``It was the post-swing era, and dance bands were my great thrill.'' After a brief stint playing with the Ringling Brothers Circus at the age of 17, he went off to Northwestern University and formed his first jazz sextet.

From his historic appearance in 1962 at the White House (invited by Jacqueline Kennedy to become the first jazz group to perform there), he has been breaking and creating traditions. Apollo 15 astronauts took his ``Road'' recording to the moon, and named two craters after his songs ``Icarus'' and ``Ghost Bends.'' And since the late '60s, Winter has become renowned for integrating the sounds of humpback whales into some of his compositions. Calling it ``Earth music,'' he has traveled to every continent to learn about and support regional ethnic folk music.

Winter notes that ``the New Age music label has deterred some people from coming, from experiencing what we do,'' and recalls ``when it was a problem to be labeled jazz.'' From the Emperor's Palace in Tokyo to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero, the Paul Winter Consort uses music to unite cultures. The group was also featured at the 1993 Environmental Inaugural Ball in Washington.

His newest release, ``Prayer for the Wild Things,'' inspired by visits to the Northern Rockies, combines his dedication to preserving nature with his love of traditional sounds, utilizing such underrepresented instruments as the English horn, French horn, and contrabass clarinet. Symphonies too rigid

In an age when symphony orchestras find themselves looking for new audiences, Winter admits to having ``ambivalent feelings'' about symphonies. ``Some of it rings true to me, like Bach and Bartok, but much of it is like being in a museum,'' he says. Although Winter applauds any interest in cultural diversity, especially the recent trend in recordings to create a category called world music, he finds the structure of most symphonies limiting to the musician.

``I've always wanted to take all those wonderful musicians and create different contexts for them where they'd get to have a more personal voice. My fantasy is to divide up a symphony into 20 or 30 different consorts, of all different instruments, and scatter them about the floor of a large arena. And the audience would get to sit on Persian rugs scattered about, wherever they wanted, among the ensembles.'' Winter has accepted invitations from New York's Haydn Planetarium to present concerts there in conjunction with the sky shows.

But the annual Winter Solstice concerts remain the centerpiece again this year. National Public Radio member stations will broadcast the Friday, Dec. 17 evening concert, some carrying it live at 9 p.m. EST, and others choosing to incorporate it into their Christmas Day programming.

Winter is heartened by the growing interest in his works, and by the continuing dedication of audiences. ``I think there's a yearning for community in this culture, and a yearning to reconnect with the world of nature, which we've pretty much lost in the last couple of centuries. Our music touches on those two things, and reawakens some powerful responses in people.''

* ``Solstice Live!: The 14th Annual Winter Solstice Celebration'' performances are tonight at 8; Friday Dec. 17 at 8:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Dec. 18 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York.

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