“A group of organists can’t get together without playing music,” says Franciscan Father Jim Gardiner, SA. And when a group of musicians from the D.C. Chapter of the American Guild of Organists (AGO) met at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land over five years ago, several of the participants went into the church to improvise on the Monastery’s Lively-Fulcher organ.

“It occurred to me that we could do something more here,” recalls Fr. Jim. He and Russell Weismann, who at the time was serving as “sub-Dean” of the District of Columbia Chapter of the AGO, met and discussed the possibilities.

Mr. Weismann remembers that “during the 2012/2013 program year, I had paid special attention to new and not-often-heard instruments in and around Washington, and because despite its beauty and historical merit, not many people know about the Monastery, at least at that time, and far more had no idea where to find it.”

He adds, “The beautiful visual environment of the Monastery lends itself well to sacred music.” But beyond the visual art, he says, “the acoustic of the Monastery church is spectacular and lends itself well to organ and choral music, which relies on a generous reverberation to assist in blending the tone of different pipes and voices. Speaking more practically, the Monastery’s convenient location to the [Metro’s] Red Line and its parking lot are added benefits!

After conversations with Fr. Jim, the organist says, the pair “envisioned a community music series that would be a collaboration between both the DC AGO Chapter and the Monastery.”

“I can’t play, sing, read music,” jokes Fr. Jim, “so Russell became, in effect, the artistic director of what came to be called “Music at the Monastery. We looked for a day and time when we wouldn’t be competing with the region’s other programming and we came up with the second

Sunday of the month at 4 p.m.,” he says. Members of the D.C. and two other regional AGO chapters in the area were invited to play.

Mr. Weismann says, “Essentially, Music at the Monastery is a grassroots project between Fr. Jim and I. We never really set any goals except for providing the Monastery, with its magnificent organ and acoustics, for use by local organists. We primarily place our focus on local organists because they then bring members of their church congregations to their recital, thus connecting new visitors with the Monastery who might not ordinarily visit. Over the fiver years it has been in existence, the program, he continues, “has grown in terms of audience and appeal. I have many organists from outside of Washington wishing to participate on the series, as well as non-organists.”

Fr. Jim also highlights the expansion of the program. “For instance, musicians National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) gave a concert as part of their series, ‘NSO in your Neighborhood.’ The series has broadened from strictly organ concerts, to other musical instruments and choral program.” For example, this February a trumpeter joined the featured organist for a program entitled, “The King of Instruments and the Instrument of Kings.” This March, a long-time Washington ensemble, “Brass of Peace,” will return for a concert. Touring choirs have also asked to perform in the church—most recently (see page 58) a joint concert with a group from Baltimore and a young people’s choir from Birmingham, Alabama. After each recital, there is a modest reception where people can meet and greet one another and the performers.

Russell Weismann concurs, noting, “Opening the series up beyond organ recitals has only broadened its appeal. However, the organ remains the bedrock of the program. “

A new addition to the series will begin this summer, with a series of concerts by Julianne Martinelli, who has played flute for a number of years at the Monastery 10 a.m. Sunday Mass. She will be joined by the Trinity Chamber Players, five to ten wind and strings musicians who perform small ensemble repertoire. The summer series will take place on three Sundays: June 14, July 12 and August 9.

As far as the future goes, Russel Weismann says, “Fr. Jim and I have been taking this program one year at a time. Eventually, it would be great to have some funding. Neither the Monastery nor the DC AGO pay any of the performers, and we rely on the generosity of a free-will offering to supply a post-concert reception. I think that it would be great if we could feature more choral performances, as well, since choral concerts are popular among Washington, D.C., audiences. Recently, organizers of the [Franciscan Custody’s] Terra Sancta Organ Festival have begun a conversation with me to see if the Monastery, which is an official Holy Land site, might participate as a satellite venue in their annual festival, which takes place across Holy Land sites in the Middle East.”

Fr. Jim adds that the Music at the Monastery program illustrates the legacy of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, which sponsors the Magnificat Institute in Jerusalem, where instrumental and vocal musicians are trained, from grade-school age through graduate licentiate.

On behalf of the District of Columbia Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, Mr. Weismann says, “We are grateful to all of the patrons of Music at the Monastery. No matter one’s religion or background, we offer a contemplative space for visitors to experience the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty.”

The year’s final regular program will take place on Sunday, May 10, with an organ recital by Carolyn Lamb Booth, of the Montgomery United Methodist Church, Damascus, Maryland.

Learn more here.

SIDEBAR:

The Lively-Fulcher organ in the Monastery Church was manufactured by Mark Lively, native of Cincinnati, Ohio, who established his own organ building firm in 1976. He joined forces with Paul Fulcher, born in Kent, England, to create Lively-Fulcher Organ Builders, now base in Rocky Mount, Virginia. According to their website, they are “the first Company in the U.S. to utilize Computer Aided Design in the construction of pipe organs” Both Mark and Paul have been associated with J.W. Walker and Sons, an English firm established in 1828. Their company has been “responsible for the voicing of scores of organs all over the world, including Europe and the Far East,” including St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington, D.C., and the Royal Parish Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, England. They report that “their recent work encompasses instruments in size from small organs for parish churches to large four manual tracker instruments for Cathedrals and Concert Halls.

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