The final curtain?
A rare Animas Music Festival begins with ‘Peace Pieces’

by Judith Reynolds

When musicians leave town, there’s more than music that’s lost. Among the many things we may lose when percussionist, composer and music professor John Pennington leaves Durango, the Animas Music Festival is just one. Pennington is professor of music and director of percussion studies at Fort Lewis College. He’s also artistic director of the Animas Music Festival. Last Friday night he, Cyprian Consiglio, and the Animas Chamber Players presented a mysterious and beautiful concert, “Peace Pieces” – the first of three programs in the 15th annual festival. The music made for a celebratory evening, but no one could forget that Pennington is leaving Durango and may not be back.

Next fall, Pennington will leave for a post as professor of music at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. “I may attempt to continue the festival with the assistance of Tim Farrell (director of Brass and Jazz Studies at Fort Lewis College). Depending on interest, grants, etc., we’ll see if this is a reality.”

Well, Pennington’s words sound comforting, but like institutions of any kind, music festivals included, they take on the personality of the founder and may or may not make a transition. What Pennington has created in these unusual, late spring explorations of chamber music cannot be duplicated without him. Farrell is a marvelous brass player – jazz and classical, so the 16th festival will likely be very different. It isn’t out of step to see the current Animas Festival as the last of its kind.

Pennington and Consiglio opened Friday’s concert with “Consecration/Aarathi,” a prayerful invocation sung in an Indian dialect. Composed by Consiglio, a Camaldolese monk who has performed and recorded with Pennington for decades, “Consecration” rolled forward on the waves of an easy 6/8 rhythm. Over his lilting guitar and Pennington’s sweet, ringing vibraphone, Consiglio sang a vocal chant. To this already warm musical texture, violinist Mary Pennington and cellist Dana Winograd added two lyrical lines into the waves of sound, threads of yellow and gold. Pianist Rick Modlin underscored the ensemble with a roving, seaworthy tempo. Midway, a vocal quartet from St. Mark’s Church completed the sonic web. All in all, the work introduced the spiritual theme and colorful textures Pennington’s festival is known for.

The theme of peace flowed through 13 more songs. Consiglio sang largely in English, but he also sang in Hebrew and various Asian dialects.

Two nonvocal works also enhanced the program: “Prayer,” a stirring lament written for cello and piano by
Ernest Bloch, was performed by Winograd and Modlin. Pennington played Emmanuel Séjourné’s Vibraphone Concerto with Modlin accompanying. The longest work in the concert – six minutes – the impressionistic concerto melted directly into Consiglio’s rendering of “Lead Me From Death Into Life,” another prayer set to music. Built on a set of contrasts, the text asked for guidance – from falsehood to truth, hatred to love, and hope from despair. “Lead Me From Death Into Life” appears on the duo’s CD “In the Heart of the Desert.” In performance, it was one of the strongest works in the concert.

Turning an unexpected corner, Consiglio sang George Harrison’s “Give Me Love” and invited the audience to sing with him. In a more direct call-and-response style, Consiglio asked, then taught, audience members to sing chants in other works, most notably “Canticle of Three Young Men.”

“Spirit in the Cave of the Heart,” a chant bearing a remarkable resemblance to an Indian raga, featured call-and-response again. The addition of the St. Mark’s Choir at the back of the church helped audience members find the courage to sing. The wide-ranging selections from the world music genre enabled Consiglio and Pennington to revisit their long history of studying, recording and performing in various parts of the world including the Middle East, India, Africa, Indonesia and throughout the United States.

The program closed on a distinctly Christian note with Consiglio’s setting of the Our Father prayer. Consiglio also asked everyone to stand, and for non-Christians, this might have been more worship service than concert. An angular melodic line left many singers adrift, not helped along by a slow tempo. The concert might have ended more appropriately with the second-to-last song: “Now All the Woods Are Sleeping.”

To contrast with the intimate opening program, the second concert in the series will be “Earth Music,” Fri., May 16, featuring the famous Paul Winter. Due to his popularity as founder of the Paul Winter Consort, Winter’s concert will be held at the Fort Lewis College Community Concert Hall. Founded in 1967, the Consort has explored ways to integrate music with the sounds of nature. In 1980, Winter created Living Music Records and has subsequently won four Grammy Awards. “This all really happened because of Paul’s 2008 Grammy for his ‘Crestone’ CD,” said Pennington. Winter also will be playing a benefit on Sun., May 18, in Crestone. Pennington said he was able, through musician Richard Cooke, to get Winter to come to Durango on his way to Crestone.

The final concert will take another musical turn. At 1 p.m. Mon., May 26, Memorial Day, Jeff Solon’s Swing’n’ Big Band will give a free performance in Durango’s Rotary Park. Let’s hope this festival won’t be the last. •