Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Divine Spark

This has turned out to be the week for dramatic musical events: Friday night, after a day of snow that made the world white, I unexpectedly had the opportunity to go to Paul Winter's 29th annual Winter Solstice Concert at the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Divine, now fully restored from a devastating 2001 fire.

The music was lovely, with exceptional contributions by gospel singer Theresa Thomason, gentle-voiced Brazilian singer-songwriter Renato Braz, percussionist Jamey Haddad, cellist Eugene Friesen and Paul McCandless, who must surely be the world's best-known oboist. The cathedral's 8,000-pipe Great Organ was also played for the first time since its post-fire restoration, and I felt the rumblings of its low notes in my viscera.

But the concert was most notable for its pageantry: Winter began it standing solo with his soprano sax high up on a walkway just below the cathedral's Rose Window, and that led to other bits of stagecraft, including a Carnaval-inspired procession by Braz, Haddad and percussionist Café on the berimbau; a man ascending on a swing in a sunlike spotlight while banging an enormous drum; the struck sounds of a giant, silvery tree made up entirely of cymbals and glockenspiels; and the arrival of a large, spotlit replica of earth that arrived, borne aloft by two stagehands, to top the tree.

I found myself thinking of a winter solstice ceremony I'd attended as a child in Cuzco, where descendants of the Incas performed an ancient ritual with a golden papier-mâché sun, and about the lights of Chanukah, and the twinkling trees of Christmas.

And that led me to the divine spark of the Kabbalists and other mystics, and how, in our longest hours of deepest darkness, we can almost always find some way to capture the light.

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