Magic and Majesty

Posted on October 22, 2008 – 3:13 PM | by OldManFoster
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The majesty of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Midtown envelops you like a warm blanket and the music reaches out and grabs at your heart.  With the Celtic cross looking down from above the choir loft, huge chandeliers glistening overhead, and the magnificent colors of the stained glass windows flanking them, the citizens of Sacramento are offered a special treat every Wednesday of the year.  Those that take advantage of it experience the joy that is special to superb music and often leave with it residing in their hearts and souls.

SlocumFor over six years, Westminster Presbyterian has offered a music program open to the public at no cost.  From Noon – 1 PM on Wednesday, lovers of the sensory delight can indulge themselves by drinking in every form of auditory expression from the classics to jazz, soloists to ensembles, instrumentalists to vocalists. It’s a veritable feast of sound, an enconium of soulful expression.

Performers from the region are showcased in the church sanctuary and
regularly attract two to three hundred area residents, many of them lunching away from nearby jobs. The Music At Noon recital series is presided over by Brad Slocum, Westminster’s organist and music coordinator.  A native Californian, published choral arranger and Magna Cum Laude music graduate of San Francisco State University, he came to Sacramento in 2002 after retiring from De Anza College in Cupertino where he taught music and served as Director of the De Anza Chorale. He initiated the program shortly after joining Westminster and is devoted to the quality of the Wednesday noon effort. 

Slocum“The Music At Noon concerts began just a month after I arrived,” he recalls.  “During my interview, the Pastor asked me if I would be willing to do a concert series and I said yes, if we can do it well.  The first year, attendance was up and down.  By the third year, we were seeing a hundred people at each concert.  Now, we regularly have two to three hundred.”  The program has flourished and become an institution, and, along with the excellence of the performers, it’s the unique diversity of the Westminster experience that makes it special.  Other programs, particularly those associated with churches, often cling to classical music throughout the season; the Westminster program offers everything from Bach to Basie. Says Slocum, “ Where other programs are often viewed as snobbish, ours has universal appeal. We relish the opportunity to bring all kinds of music to the community and I think we accomplish that objective.”

Indeed they do.  A recent run of concerts featured a women’s choral ensemble singing folk songs from South Africa, Brazil, Israel, and Hungary as well as Negro spirituals, followed in subsequent weeks by a lyric coloratura soprano, a brass quintet playing pop songs as well as classics, and a group performing familiar numbers from musical theater.  In the first row of the balcony, concert “regulars” tapped their hands in time to the beat of the music, some on the railing and others on their knees, and swayed, their heads moving to and fro as they moved in synch with the voices. Throughout the church, people listened avidly, some leaning back, fully relaxed, while others leaned forward, chins in hand.

It was a rapt, thoroughly attentive audience. Weeks earlier, over 600 people, the largest crowd to hear Music At Noon, filled the church to overflowing as it gathered to hear three piano prodigies play the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin and Prokofiev.  A wildly enthusiastic audience cheered the youthful trio as they displayed remarkable talent and stage presence.  A Sacramento Bee article about the trio helped put people in the seats and the young pianists didn’t disappoint. “They will be back”, says Slocum.  “You can count on that.  They’re extremely talented and the young people’s concerts are the most successful”.

As the concert series has matured and grown in reputation, the region’s performers have taken note– Slocum rarely has to pursue talent.  Bookings extend through the end of 2009 and several performers, those whose popularity demands it, are already scheduled for 2010 and 2011.  None of the performers are paid by the church, but attendees are urged to leave a donation at the door and the musicians are paid an honorarium from the proceeds.  Slocum has stressed a focus in keeping with the spirit of the community.  “We don’t want exclusivity or snobbishness”, he says.  “We feature programs that appeal to an audience that appreciates diversity in its music.  We want to think broadly and appeal to the community’s various elements.”

Helping to make the series a success is the facility itself.  Slocum points out that it has marvelous acoustics, aiding in a sound so highly regarded that it is favored for recording purposes by many local musicians.  “And we have a marvelous pipe organ, an absolute delight to play, as well as two grand pianos with excellent sound.  They all add to the ambiance and the quality of our music,”

Westminster Presbyterian has always had a reputation for fine music and a history of community service.  Presided over by the Reverend Dr David
Thompson, whose support has made the series possible, the church has a rich music tradition dating back to its founding in 1866.  While other churches of that era had only a piano or reed organ, Westminster had a small, pumped pipe organ.  The second, and current, home of the church, completed in 1927 and located at 13th and N Streets, boasts an organ with fifty ranks (sets of pipes) and 3,000 pipes, the largest sixteen feet in length and the smallest, an inch and a half.  “It’s a magnificent instrument,” opines Slocum. “When we hired Brad, we wrote the management of the music program into his job description,” says Dr. Thompson.  “I’d seen a similar program in a London church where people brought their lunches to a noontime music program and I thought, why not here?  And we’re absolutely delighted with Brad.  He’s a brilliant musician and impresario.  The program is all him.  He runs every part of it. And it’s a great gift to the community and fits well with the church’s program of dedicated community involvement.”

Those Sacramentans who’ve discovered the Westminster program clearly treasure it and keep coming back for more.  But there are plenty of seats
available.  So to paraphrase a James Taylor song, “Step on down, step on down” to the church any Wednesday during the noon hour.  You’ll doubtless see those same “regulars” observed earlier, tapping their hands and feet and swaying to the music, soaking up the sounds of the concert and sharing in the contagion of audience delight.

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