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Divine Diversity in SF Churches

By P. Segal

Music seems to have been a part of religious experience as long as there have been religions. Egyptian tombs and artifacts relate that it was the god Osirus who invented the trumpet. The early Greeks credited Pan with the creation of the "pipes," fashioned from the nymph Syrinx, who turned into a bunch of reeds to avoid Pan's passionate advances. Since antiquity, music has been associated with the divine.

In the Old Testament, ram's horns bellow down the walls of Jericho. David played the Jewish harp and wrote and sang the songs that were to become the Psalms of the Bible, sung in synagogues and early Christian churches. King Solomon, the son of David, maintained a huge orchestra of musicians and singers, and was the creator of the first conservatory of music.

As the early Christian church evolved, followers fell back on the two kinds of music they knew, from Greece and from Israel. From this fusion evolved the chants of Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox musicians, the Gregorian chants, the musical form that was the basis of Western European music.

St. Mary's
St. Mary's Cathedral's magnificent Ruffatti organ.

Certain musical forms, such as masses, cantatas, organ sonatas and oratorios, became the kinds of music most commonly associated with performances in churches. But in the latter half of the 20th century, avant-garde congregations began listening to much more in their acoustically superb houses of worship.

The musical options are endless in the wide variety of faiths and denominations worshipped in San Francisco. Baptist churches resound with the joyous gospel sounds of Sunday mornings. Synagogues like the beautiful Temple Emanu-el offer traditional Jewish music. And every morning at 11:00am, in the chapel of the tiny Carmelite monastery across from St. Ignatius, the nuns chant behind the cover of screens, the only sound they are allowed to make, an ethereal music from another century. Religion is not the only reason to go to church; as in the "Dark Ages," the church remains a bastion of culture and the arts.

In recent years, San Francisco churches have begun to offer an amazing diversity of musical performances. Many of them host a regular concert series with a variety of performers and a surprising amount of works by modern composers. Unlike most classical concerts, many church performances cost a nominal price, or are simply offered as gifts of God along with a modest donation request. At least half the days of each month offer a performance worth attending.

John Eichenseer
John Eichenseer creates original ambient music for St. John's "Third Watch" coffeehouse at 5:00pm on the third Saturday of each month.

St. Mary's Cathedral
1111 Gough St., 567-2020, x213
The cathedral recently installed a new 89-rank, 70-stop organ, designed specially for the space and built over three and a half years in Padua, Italy. Its strains ring to the rafters of this magnificent modern building. Aug 4: John Renke, organ, and William Harvey, trumpet; Aug 11: James Warren, organ; Aug 18: Gallus Austrian Choir; Aug 25: Mark Thomas (Portland, MA), organ, all recitals 3:30pm, 45 mins. in length.

Old First Church
1751 Sacramento St., 474-1608
The oldest Presbyterian congregation in California has for 26 years maintained the tradition of a notable concert series, with over 60 concerts a year covering a wide range of music, from solo recitals to chamber ensembles to jazz quartets. Aug 4: Well-known Bay Area pianist Sara Cahill will perform a program of recent works by local contemporary composers, including a world premier; Aug 11: Indian music and dance with Satya Narayana Charka; Aug 18: Pianist Daniel Glover performs Schumann, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Balakirev, Szymanowski and Stravinsky; Aug 23: Barbican String Quartet (London); Aug 25: Duo Nardeau (Iceland), flute duets with guest Peter Maté (piano).

St. John's Episcopal Church
1661 15th St., 861-1436
On the first Saturday of every month, the "fun-loving, open-hearted" St. John's holds a free half-hour organ concert at 5:00pm, followed by an elegant food and wine reception. On the third Saturday, there is a coffee house with free ambient music from 5:00-6:00pm. Both events are followed by a 6:00pm service with original music by organist Charles Rus.

St. Luke's Church
1755 Clay St., 673-7327
Music Director Jonathan Dimmock maintains a vigorous schedule of international music and an impressive range of 20th century works. Aug 4: the Cantoria Alberto Grau of Venezuela will perform choral music little known in their home country. The fall and winter series will offer two major modern works: Menotti's Ahmal and the Night Visitors, and Benjamin Britten's cantata, St. Nicholas. St. Luke's is the only church on the West Coast which presents a full choral mass (third Sunday of the month, September to May).

First Congregational Church
432 Mason St., 392-2080
This church's splendid acoustics will bring the best out of a new free recital series at 12:30pm every Wednesday starting in September, including piano, voice, organ, oboe and flute. The FCC's music department will later present Fauré's Requiem and St. Säens' Christmas Oratorio, and the SF Community Music Center will continue to hold regular concerts there, such as the popular New Year's performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

Noe Valley Ministry
1021 Sanchez St., 454-5238
Home of Fat Chance Belly Dance and birthplace of "Concerts in Sanctuary," an organization started by the music directors of various churches in the City to support and encourage chamber performances in church venues. The Ministry has also raised grants to bring the Arteria Quartet, which plays on period instruments, to perform Haydn, Boccherini and Mozart in schools, hospitals and other venues, and will celebrate this year's 200th birthdays of both Brahms and Schubert, including the beautiful Trout Quintet. Next spring, The U.C. Davis Contemporary Players will bring audiences music from the romantics to the moderns.

Old St. Mary's Cathedral
660 California St., 288-3840, x213
The Chinatown landmark is currently fighting for survival in the face of costly renovation work, but continues its long-time Noontime Concerts series on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 12:30pm. Thursdays are devoted to piano recitals, which incorporate some unusual works for a church setting, such as Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue or pieces by Rachmaninoff. Old St. Mary's also presents singers in the Bay Area Vocal Arts Competition and many other forms of quality entertainment. It's a short walk from the Financial District or a brief ride on the cable-car. Pick up a flyer with monthly listings of concerts in City churches.

Grace Cathedral
1100 California St., 749-6350
The venerable venue atop Nob Hill is often the scene of some unusual performances. During the Dalai Lama's last visit, the cathedral's acoustically stunning walls reverberated with the sounds of Tibetan instruments. A memorable concert series of works by the 13th century mystic, Hildegarde von Bingen, was played there, and organist Andrew Peterson recently gave a recital of Parisian composers of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. The excellent Grace Cathedral Concerts series will resume in September. The program will include organ music by English composers, a candlelight chamber music concert and the Men of the Grace Cathedral Choir.

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From the August 1996 issue of SF Live

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