Quality performances at Earth Concert overshadow so-so music

The concept of the music group as individual musicians drawing off of and inspiring each other to fashion their own unique sound is one rarely encountered in the music world. Often an ensemble is only a mouthpiece for one of its members or an outside composer; often it is not even a creative force in forming its own music.

The Paul Winter Consort, which performed its Concert for the Earth with the Williams’ College Chamber Choir, Wahconah Regional High School Children’s Chorus, members of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Chamber Choir, the Zambezi Marimba band and Kusika on Friday at 8:00 p.m. in Chapin Hall, is just such a rare experience. The Consort was formed by Paul Winters as an experimental, eclectic, genre-crossing, sometimes improvisational musical group in the ’70s.

The Consort employs techniques such as noodling, where a musician plays whatever may enter his head and the other musicians jump in at their leisure, rafting around the Colorado in search of fulfillment and better acoustics and using animal sounds in its music.

Paul Winter plays soprano saxophone; Eugene Friesen, cello and vocals; Paul Halley, piano and vocals; Jamey Haddad, percussion; and Lori Pozzo served as vocalist, only performing with the Missa Gaia. The Consort also has a bassist whose first name is Nelson; lamentably the program failed to mention him, so his last name remains an enigma. Kusika is Williams’ African dance group; the Zembezi marimba band is Williams’s own as well.

The concert was divided in two with a two-minute intermission between the halves. The Paul Winter Consort played its music throughout the first half. Often Paul Winter’s sax simply frolicked over the dense chord of the other instruments, with an occasional stab of cello or piano arpeggio piercing through the pleasant fog. In the first piece of the evening the soprano sax laid out a strong, vaguely medieval melody, firing jazzy runs of notes between the basic theme with great exuberance. In fact, the consort does superficially resemble a jazz ensemble: much of the music features Winters playing lead over an extended rhythm section. Additionally, both the piano and the saxophone employ jazz phrasings throughout various pieces. At times the Consort gives the impression of being a virtuosic soft jazz group, but it does get much better.

The second piece, for something completely different, was a Bossa Nova song. Nice, slowly pulsating Latin stuff, the song’s melody still allowed the saxophone to soar above the marshaled throb of the other musicians. This was followed by an original piece that was intended to conjure the impression of going down the Colorado in a small raft. The piece displayed a more complex relationship between the players, the cello and violin foregrounding and interlocking with the saxophone instead of providing a dense background.

At this point both Paul Winters and Gene Friesen discussed their improvisational practice of noodling, and then proceeded to demonstrate it. As the cello sighed a simple melody that doubled back on itself, the piano probed with soft chords; the piece develops into a swinging, slashing mass of shifting tempos and emotions with a synchronized virtuosity of immense precision.

The first half continued with several solos and other pieces, usually in a cheerful vein. Kusika and Zambezi began the second half, creating an energetic, throbbing beat. Afterwards members of the marimba ensemble played a piece on five marimbas of various sizes, a wonderfully exuberant piece marked by happy flashes of sound, a solid bass line and harmonics.

Excerpts from the Missa Gaia followed. Masses set to music have been around in western music since before the advent of musical notation in medieval Europe. The form has progressed from the plainsong of Gregorian chant to the musical acme of Bach’s Mass in B minor, Mozart’s Requiem Mass, and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and has progressed into the twentieth century in works such as Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Britten’s War Requiem.

At its greatest musical perfection the mass is thought to provide some of the greatest music ever written in the Western Canon; it is perhaps the single greatest genre. The Missa Gaia does not compare, although it is often an enjoyable and even uplifting experience.

The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City commissioned the mass of the Paul Winter in 1981. It has been played there every St. Francis Day Celebration since then. St. Francis is a Roman Catholic Saint who embraced a love of all of God’s creation in his love of God, including the non-human creation. Members of the Williams Chamber Choir have participated in the event the past six years.

The Missa Gaia celebrates the earth, our affinity with it and with each other; it is a large explosion of eco-friendly brotherly love. Many of its pieces incorporate sounds of animals from the wild and occasionally even incorporate the sound as musical themes that are developed. The best example of this is the beautiful “Kyrie Eleison.”

The piece begins with a wolf call and a set of simple, descending notes; then the saxophone and a singer at the back of the auditorium then take up the theme; eventually the wolf echoes the call and the piece develops along this line. The piano rumbles in the low register, and the theme builds into the choir’s declarative statement of “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.” Through it all, “Kyrie Eleison” follows the three-note call of the wolf in a striking fashion.

The other two pieces that incorporated animal sounds, “Sanctus-Benedictus” and “Agnus Dei,” did so in a much more disappointing manner. The first replicates the song of the humpback whale on the cello, only to be the completely forgotten. The latter employs the groans of the harp seal as some sort of prelude to the music.

The excerpts from the mass followed the pattern of musical statement: build-up, restatement, occasional variation, restatement, all along very straightforward, sunny chord progressions. Occasionally a contrapuntal texture was employed, but the dominant aspect was the predominance of “chorus” sections where the triumphant principle idea would have its way with the audience. At times the mass bore musical resemblance to “We are the World,” warm and at times joyful, but hardly ever compelling.

In short, the Paul Winter Consort and the assorted choirs and ensembles performed wonderfully on Friday; only sometimes did the music measure up to the warmth of emotion and skilled techniques.

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