I was in Westport the night Westport Presbyterian Church was almost destroyed by fire in December 2011. My heart sank as I saw firetrucks throng the neighborhood and watched this wonderful church go up in flames.
But the church’s plucky congregation of 70 people was not about to give up on what they and their predecessors had built. Architect Eric Heitman from BNIM has given the new church a light, airy, contemporary interior while preserving its 100-year-old stone facade.
The crowning glory of the renovation is the Martin Pasi organ, which rises majestically from floor to ceiling, gleaming with the promise of glorious music. Kansas City will be able to hear the new organ and celebrate the rebirth of the church with a dedication recital at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
“The very first building was just a wooden cabin,” said Marian McCaa Thomas, Westport’s longtime organist and music director. “The second church was a brick building, which burned down not long after it was built. The third one, the stone church that burned in 2011, was dedicated in 1904.”
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Thomas, who retired as music director in 2009 and is now a member of the congregation, speaks with pride about her church and its history.
“The church began before the Civil War,” she said. “It couldn’t get a pastor during the war, but the Sunday school continued. One of the early pastors thought the congregation sang horribly, and he wanted it to improve, so he hired some singers to lead the congregation. That tradition has continued, so we still have paid section leaders.”
She added that their repertoire ranges from Renaissance English choral music to world music to African-American spirituals.
The new Martin Pasi organ has 23 stops, 29 ranks and 1,614 pipes, equivalent in size to the organ that was lost in the fire. Its $650,000 cost was covered by insurance.
Thomas headed up the six-member committee to find an organ builder.
“We visited an organ in St. Louis and we visited another one in Kansas City that Martin Pasi had built for Hope Lutheran in Shawnee,” she said. “We really liked that organ and the sound of the organ.”
Pasi has a distinguished career. He was born in Austria, where he apprenticed with an organ builder for four years before moving to the United States in 1981. He is now based in Roy, Wash., where he and his crew of four spend one year building each instrument.
A Martin Pasi organ is distinguished by its 18th-century sound, perfectly suited to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Dietrich Buxtehude. It’s also entirely mechanical.
“The organ has no modern, electronic doo-dads,” Thomas said. “Everything is hand-stopped, so it requires special skills to play.”
The console was also installed so that the organist is facing the congregation.
“We wanted the organist to be part of the worship community, not sitting there with their back to everything. But because of that, the congregation cannot see the organist as they play, so in a concert setting, we will show images of the organist on drop-down screens.”
Westport Presbyterian can now resume its popular Brown Bag Concerts, which for the past four years have been held at Immanuel Lutheran Church. The free concerts were instituted by Thomas in 1994.
Lyra Pherigo is now director of the Brown Bag series. One upcoming event is Jan Kraybill’s organ recital in November.
It’s inspiring that a church with only 70 congregants can make such an impact on the community at large.
“People are always surprised when we say how small the congregation is,” Thomas said. “It’s true that a lot of the same people do several jobs, so, of course, our great hope is that there will be more people coming, maybe out of curiosity at first. The lead architect and his family have joined the church, which is very exciting. We’re hopeful the church will grow, and that will give us more people to help with our ministry. I call Westport Presbyterian the little church with a big heart.”
Sphinx Chamber Orchestra at Folly
The Harriman-Jewell Series will begin its new season when it presents the Sphinx Virtuosi chamber orchestra Saturday at the Folly Theater in a free Discovery Concert.
The youthful orchestra, comprising 18 accomplished black and Latino classical string soloists, will perform an all-Latin program, “Viajes Latinos” (Latin Journeys). The Sphinx members have all completed or are currently pursuing their studies at the nation’s top music schools, including Juilliard, Curtis, Eastman, Peabody, Harvard and the University of Michigan.
It’s appropriate that an ensemble as diverse as the Sphinx Virtuosi chamber orchestra opens the Harriman-Jewell Series’ new season. Richard Harriman founded the series more than 50 years ago with a commitment to diversity. His successor, Clark Morris, has strengthened that commitment with expanded international programming and more free concerts to make music as accessible to the community as possible.
On Sept. 24, the Catalyst Quartet, made up of members of Sphinx, will give a free concert at 2 p.m. in the American Rotunda on the second floor of the East wing of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
7 p.m. Saturday. Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St. Free. To print your tickets, visit HJSeries.org.
Escher String Quartet
The artist M.C. Escher was known for his mind-boggling, paradoxical art that plays tricks with our perception while providing exquisite delight. The Escher String Quartet also will provide challenges and smiles when it opens the Friends of Chamber Music’s new season Friday at the Folly Theater.
On the program is Béla Bartók’s intense String Quartet No. 2, but also Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s charming String Quartet in B-flat Major, K. 589, a work gilt like a rococo angel. Guitarist Jason Vieaux will join the Escher Quartet for the Capricho árabe by Francesco Tárrega and Luigi Boccherini’s lively crowd-pleaser, the “Fandango” Quintet, which will close the concert.
Celebrating Wylliams/Henry dance
The Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company celebrated its 25th anniversary season with a spring concert this past June. But one concert was not enough to showcase 25 years of dance, so they’re continuing the celebration with another 25th anniversary program this Friday and Saturday at White Recital Hall.
Once again, the company will present audience favorites from its repertoire, like “To Have and to Hold” by Shapiro & Smith and “To Each Her Own” by Paula Weber. But this time, the group also will present a world premiere: a new work by by Cuban-born choreographer Edgar Anido.
All in all, it should be a typical Wylliams/Henry performance of highly creative and engaging choreography, just the sort of thing that has made the company a beloved part of the Kansas City arts scene for the past quarter century.
New Ear chamber concert
“Impressions” is the theme of the New Ear Contemporary Chamber Ensemble’s new season. This Saturday, the group will kick things off with “Impressions in Metal,” a concert featuring music for brass and percussion. New works by Liza Lim, Ravi Kittappa and Unsuk Chin will be performed.