Feast for the eyes and ears

Published 3:43 pm Friday, January 21, 2022

Concerts offer classical music, practice for student musicians in beautiful sanctuary

Three days after Thanksgiving 2021, a brass quintet took up their instruments, an organist laid her fingers on the keys, and the six began their rendition of “Nun Danket Alle Gott.”

The title of the 1730 hymn by the legendary composer Johann Sebastian Bach translates to “Now Thank We All Our God.” It is a song of thanksgiving, an answer to a question often forgotten as November gives way to December and a sea of Christmas carols every year — where is the Thanksgiving music?

On this particular November Sunday, it was also a nod to the thankfulness many felt to be able to revive the Sundays at Four concert series after a nearly two-year hiatus. It was the first performance since March 2020, and the pews in the small but historic sanctuary at Christ Episcopal Church, surrounded by beautiful and recently restored stained-glass windows, were nearly full.

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“We draw together a lot of the community,” said Mary Cole, the founder of the Sundays at Four series.

It was 2008 when Cole got inspired to begin the concert series with a chance conversation with someone at the drugstore. The person said they thought Christ Episcopal Church, on the southeast corner of Main and South Church streets, was a part of the museum across the street because “the doors always stay shut.”Cole, a member there, decided she needed to find a way to open the doors.

“I started looking around, and I thought, ‘There’s no classical music anymore,’” she said. “I said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to start a music series.’”

Cole reached out to Heidi Bloch, the organist at Christ Episcopal, and others, who all formed a board for the Sundays at Four concert series. It started as a ministry of the church with a separate line item, operating independently. It later became a part of the Isle of Wight Arts League, though it’s still hosted at the church and church members remain heavily involved.

“Certainly, our quality is really top-notch,” said Bloch. “And this room is just spectacular, not only to look at but also to make music in. It’s eye candy and ear candy.”

In a typical year, three classical music concerts are given in addition to one recital for students. Cole and others agreed that the student recitals are their favorite part.

Many students have “not ever had an opportunity to give a full recital in their life in high school,” Cole said. However, the Sundays at Four recitals give them a chance to feel what a professional concert would be like — they must dress professionally and prepare not only their music but also a few words to tell the audience about each piece before they play it.

Students have performed all sorts of different music over the years, Cole said, from vocalists to harpists to pianists and even percussionists, as well as most of the instruments from the brass, wind and string families.

“We pay them, and we pay their accompanist,” Cole said. “We try to give them a feeling of how it would be as a professional.”

Bloch said the student program, always the first Sunday in August, is typically the most well attended of the year.

“They’ve all said this experience, being expected to perform at a professional level and to prepare something to say about their pieces, has been really good for them in their college application process,” Bloch said.

Many of the students who have been involved over the years indeed went on to become professional musicians, both performing and teaching, Cole said.

Unfortunately, the series took a hit during the pandemic, but the hope is that following the Nov. 28 holiday concert, the series will now be back for good, Cole said. As a rule, board members of the concert series — although many are professional musicians themselves — have been prohibited from giving the program in the past, but they did so on Nov. 28 to avoid having to cancel on an outside group in case anything happened with the pandemic.

The Second Ending Brass Quintet, led by Sundays at Four Executive Director Dru Stowe, gave the program on Nov. 28, with Stowe on the tuba, Kerry Moffit and James Barnard on the trumpets, Kenneth Keller on the trombone and Ellen Polachek on the horn. Bloch, another board member, accompanied them on the organ.

Stowe said the series is bringing music to Isle of Wight County that otherwise would not be heard here.

“It is the only place you’re going to hear real, high-quality chamber music up close and personal in the county,” Stowe said. “Chamber music was written to be performed in somebody’s nice parlor or living room up close. It wasn’t just music that was over there or all the way up on the stage, but you can really see what’s going on and hear the little nuances. It’s a rare opportunity in our county to get to do something like that.”

He added that the concert series is constantly trying to find more ways to reach the community.

“We are trying to keep it growing,” he said. “It’s got a lot of good staying power.”