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After 40 years of concerts at a New York cathedral, Paul Winter held his summer solstice celebration at a new location: a barn in Connecticut.Concert in the Barn, the transporting new offering by the Paul Winter Consort, represents the latest chapter in an annual series of concerts celebrating the summer solstice. Yet the 2021 performance captured on the album stands apart due to its setting. Instead of communing with musicians at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine Cathedral, where 26 previous editions took place, saxophonist-composer Winter assembled a new group of collaborators at a barn on his property in Litchfield, Connecticut.
For Winter, the results were magical. “I like to think in terms of a creative crucible, where you have the right people in the right place at the right time,” he says. “It’s happened a few times over the 60 years I’ve been recording and concertizing professionally, and this was one of the times.”
The roots of the summer solstice series stretch back more than four decades. “We were invited in 1980 to be artists in residence at the cathedral,” Winter recalls. “I think a major reason the dean at the time invited us was his dedication to creating a bridge between spirituality and ecology, and he appreciated the ecological dimension of our repertoire.”
Indeed, that same year, Winter launched Living Music, a platform for work that used natural sounds as elements in his sonic tapestry. “I knew no record label would be interested in some of the things I wanted to do, such as the celebration of sea mammals on our first album, Callings. It seemed like time to create our own context for producing music.”
For his first project at the cathedral, Winter notes, “I wanted to find the most universal milestone, and initially, it was the winter solstice.”
The winter solstice events became tradition, but in 1995, Winter came up with a new concept. “The summer solstice is the longest day of the year, and I had the idea of doing a concert to welcome the season’s first sunrise. I asked the dean if we could do an early morning concert. He said, ‘What time?’ and I said, ‘The birds start singing at 4:30.’ He said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and that’s the way we’ve done it ever since.”
In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic closed the cathedral during summer solstice. So Winter relocated the concert to his barn and contacted musicians who either lived nearby or were able to travel to his home: cellist Eugene Friesen, bassoonist Jeff Boratko, pianist Henrique Eisenmann and vocalist Theresa Thomason. But one guest, the namesake of the wondrous composition “The Well-Tempered Wood Thrush,” had no commute whatsoever.
“He’s the first creature I was able to record right at home, since he came to a tree outside,” Winter says. “I found out the three notes and four phrases of the wood thrush’s song outline different triads — and the four triads were the same four chords as the beginning of the prelude to Bach’s ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier.’ It was a coincidence so extraordinary there’s no word for it, and it was clear we had to incorporate Bach’s piece into ours.”
Another highlight is the Consort’s rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” chosen because 2021’s summer solstice fell on the first Juneteenth officially recognized as a federal holiday. “Theresa said she’d love to sing it, and we rehearsed it over the phone with Henrique the night before he came out,” Winter says. “It was pretty much a spontaneous performance.”
Winter looks forward to returning to the cathedral for years to come. But the barn detour served as a reminder that great performances can happen anywhere. As he puts it, “There are so many ways to make music, so many possibilities.” - Michael Roberts