(Originally published for the Litchfield County Times)
Paul Winter, founder and leader of the Paul Winter Consort, spends more time at his home in Litchfield these days to be with his wife and young daughter, but remains as active as ever in his musical pursuits. His concerts still take him around the globe and he continues a 20-year tradition of celebrating the summer and winter solstices at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
The composer-bandleader-saxophonist has lived in Litchfield since 1974 and has created an eclectic catalog of music spanning more than 40years. His curiosity and respect for foreign cultures, and for the planet and its inhabitants, have provided him with an endless source of inspiration.
The World Tree is a project Winter has been working on for the past three years. He describes it as an event, an album, a book and a PBS TV special. It is based on a participatory musical celebration and intended to give the audience a “deeper experience of its own expression and a reconnection to a larger family of life.”
In the program, the musicians are positioned upon ten stages surrounding the audience in a large arena with a 22-foot aluminum spiral sound sculpture on centerstage, which is hung with hundreds of bells, gongs and chimes, representing the diversity of life. An ensemble of African-American dancers ascends and descends the stages, and the musicians periodically play instruments that hang from the tree.
One of the first World Tree performances had unfortunate timing. OnSeptember9, 2001, an all-day celebration took place at the Shelburne Farm in Vermont, an environmental center on Lake Champlain with an immense barn for performances.
The final version of the Earth Charter, a document developed by Professor Steven Rockefeller of Middlebury College and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, was presented. Itis,inessence,aMagnaCartafortheEarth,signedbyallnationsregarding their commitment to peace, the environment and sustainable usage of resources.
“On the morning of the tenth, we had breakfast with a group of people who spoke and presented, and we said goodbye as they were leaving for New York,” Mr. Winter remembered. “On the next morning I was still there and we knew they were right there in the city. It turned out that they actually saw the second plane hit and the buildings go down. It was such a phenomenal shift from the sheer optimism that we all felt, to that.”
On June 21, he starts off the longest day of the year with his ninth annual Summer Solstice Celebration, beginning at dawn, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
The core of the current Consort includes keyboardist Paul Sullivan, bassist Eliot Wadopian and cellist Eugene Friesen. A group of percussionists play with the Consort including Barry Olsen, Chris Berry, who lives in Zimbabwe and plays the mbira, or thumb piano, and Valerie Dee Naranjo, a Native American who plays the Gyil (jee-lee), a marimba native to Ghana. She arranged the percussion for The Lion King on Broadway and is a regular member of the Saturday Night Live Band.
“What I loved most were dance bands,”
Winter thanks of his childhood in Pennsylvania, where he started playing the saxophone at age nine.
“I remembered how goodeverybodyinthatwholedancehallfeltwhenthatmusicwasplaying.Igrewup kind of aspiring to that. I just loved to create situations where people felt that way.”
As for composing, there is no ritual. He comes up with a seed idea and improvises on it via the soprano saxophone, piano or voice, then compiles a group of ideas on cassette tapes, of which are seen in a glance of his barn/studio.