A Melodic Marathon for the Solstice

NEW YORK — The winter solstice sometimes brings damp and bitter cold, so Make Music Winter, the explosion of mostly participatory, mostly al fresco musical “parades” held throughout New York City each Dec. 21, can be hit or miss. But this Thursday was gorgeous — crisp and sunny — making it a pleasure for New York Times critics and reporters to fan out to some of this year’s offerings.

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A Melodic Marathon for the Solstice
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NEW YORK — The winter solstice sometimes brings damp and bitter cold, so Make Music Winter, the explosion of mostly participatory, mostly al fresco musical “parades” held throughout New York City each Dec. 21, can be hit or miss. But this Thursday was gorgeous — crisp and sunny — making it a pleasure for New York Times critics and reporters to fan out to some of this year’s offerings.



This hardy Make Music Winter perennial involves trudging from Symphony Space on West 95th Street to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine at 112th Street, “while singing medieval melodies once sung on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela” in Spain, according to advance publicity. That “while singing” proved problematic.

In a warm-up, chorus director James John worked through a little tune from the 14th-century “Libre Vermell de Monserrat”: “Splendens Ceptigera” (“Shining Sovereign”), which splits into a three-part canon. Many of the 40 or so participants in the makeshift chorus indicated that they were members of amateur singing groups, and there was clearly a modicum of musical know-how scattered among them.

“Now,” John asked, “shall we try it while walking?”

At least no one suggested that they chew gum at the same time. As the singers headed toward Riverside Park, repeatedly interrupted by traffic signals and the like, they were hard put to stay together physically, let alone musically.

The three-part polyphony soon gave way to unison singing, and, after a while, to silence. Once into the park, everyone mostly just walked and conversed, stopping every few blocks to work up another number with John, including a ringer from the late 16th century, the lovely “Coventry Carol” (“Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child”).

Then, up several flights of steps and out of the park, it was on to the cathedral. “Count Thy Steps,” a sign on the church fence greeted, too late: They were by then mostly behind us.

In the cathedral, the weary pilgrims assembled in front of the main altar, and John led them through their repertory. They poured their song and their hearts into the building’s vast recesses, to relatively little effect. No shame there. This colossus has swallowed up bigger sounds than theirs, but that only adds to the awe it inevitably inspires. And awe must be some of what any pilgrim is looking for.



The Prelude of Bach’s Suite No. 1 for solo cello is mostly a sequence of chords played in flowing arpeggio figures. But composer James Holt heard within the piece a strangely contemplative choral work. So he liberated it, in a sense. Some 30 or so intrepid New Yorkers, including a few children, showed up at noon in the front of the Arsenal Building in Central Park to perform Holt’s 30-minute “Prelude” while walking toward Bethesda Fountain.

Holt essentially selected notes from Bach’s harmonies and dramatically prolonged them to make a work — less an arrangement than a radical transformation — that unfolds as a series of extremely slow, sustained sonorities.

Thomas McCargar led the performance (and the walk), stopping along the way under a few arches to take advantage of their reverberant acoustics. A few times, the group passed by other outdoor music-makers, including a drummer playing plastic tubs and metal pots, and a saxophonist offering a medley of Christmas carols. Somehow, this mingling enhanced the spiritual richness of the music and the communal experience.

“Let’s walk, but stay together like this,” McCargar urged at one point. This seemed good advice, not just for performing music outdoors but also for living in New York.


‘West African Fête’

This was more performance and less participation than many of the Make Music Winter parades, but it was delightful nevertheless. Only a handful of amateurs — including a baby in a carrier with a tiny maraca in each fist — brought small percussion instruments and joined this high-spirited ensemble as it made its way from the Public Theater up Lafayette Street to Union Square and back down on Broadway.

The base of the jovial groove as the little group walked was a lilting, repeating riff on the kora, the 21-string harp-lute that a musician played with its base propped against his torso, plucking with his thumbs. Hooked up to an amplifier on a small hand truck, it was the foundation for a thicket of cheerful percussion: a balafon (wooden xylophone) played while hanging from a musician’s neck; a djembe (goblet drum); a cowbell; and drumsticks applied liberally to trash cans, street signs and lampposts as the half-hour march progressed.

To walk within this company was to be immersed in milky balafon, twangy kora, and crashing trash can, with occasional sharp squiggles of tone from a wooden flute. It wasn’t quite raucous, but there was a mischievous spirit to the enterprise: The driver of an SUV wasn’t amused when one of the artists prevented her from moving into the intersection before the light changed because he was dancing in front of her car.

The mood turned more sober when we returned to the Public. “Are we free or not?” Abdou Mbacke, the walk’s organizer and informal conductor, asked, before naming countries where he said people were still enslaved.

“We’re not free if everyone is not free,” he added, as the company chanted “broken chains,” the title of the upcoming musical Mbacke is directing, and in which the artists on the walk will appear.

It was a serious finale, but also — particularly on a freshly cool, radiantly cloudless day — an inspiring one. An onlooker with a camera asked me if I was a reporter. Yes, I answered, and inquired how she was.

“Blessed,” she said. “And so are you.”


‘JACK Plays Haas in the Dark’

At first, the JACK Quartet’s master class at National Sawdust felt like a support group meeting. Fewer than a dozen people were in the audience, and the space was so intimate that the musicians began by asking us to introduce ourselves. We had been encouraged to bring instruments; I was the only one to oblige. “You’re definitely going to be our guinea pig,” violinist Austin Wulliman told me with a wicked smile.

The ensemble, one of New York’s most exciting new-music champions, gave us a preview of Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet No. 9, which they were to perform that night in total darkness. (Even the red exit signs would be covered.) This was a glimpse into the harmonic language of Haas, who writes in microtones and overtones with the power to leave you shaken.

After the brief performance the group tried, admirably, to explain the music theory behind Haas’ piece while being amusingly self-aware about absurd microtonal descriptions like “D flat syntonic sharp undecimal sharp.” For anyone with community music experience — or even anyone trained in the even-tempered world of Western classical music — this was entirely new territory.

That’s where I came in as the guinea pig.

At one point, to demonstrate how microtonal language can create precise harmony, Jay Campbell, the cellist, played a D, with which I tried to harmonize by playing a B flat. I slid my finger slightly lower until we achieved what might be some of the warmest, purest harmony I’ve ever heard.

“See what we mean?” Wulliman told us. Then he pointed at me and said, “Your eyes lit up. You can tell when it’s right.”


‘The Earth Is Our Mother’

Even when they come off mostly as planned, Make Music Winter events generally retain an improvisatory air. But this little program, ambitiously combining American Indian and environmental themes, was left almost rootless by the absence of one of its leaders, composer and performer Judith Sainte Croix, because of illness.

It was left to flutist Andrew Bolotowsky and a hardworking Santa Claus (aka Henry Oelkers), to hold things more or less together for some 15 participants who, through direction or indirection, found their way to a forlorn little sidewalk space in SoHo, awash in traffic and construction noise. The dual themes were played out near the beginning and at the end with a brief Hopi chant, “The Earth Is Our Mother (She will take care of us/We must take care of her),” with Bolotowsky playing a Native American flute and Claus on drum.

For the rest, there was as much variety as you could pack into 40 minutes. Bolotowsky opened with a tune from Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks,” and the Christmas fare ranged from the inane (“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”) to the glorious (Michael Praetorius’ “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”).

When “Jingle Bells” came around, a mother cautioned her young children to “sing the right words.” You had to wonder what the kids might have had in mind.

A passer-by added yet another agenda item to an already overburdened program, handing out new lyrics for “White Christmas,” by Phyllis Kind, from a little sheaf, “Feminist Carols,” distributed by B. Rugged. “Stop dreaming of a White Christmas/Start thinking multiculturally,” the wee motley group sang.


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