Fully blessed: Summer, the Old Church, Gershwin

By Daniel Fitzmaurice

The Old Church/Photo by Jennie Baker Photography

What’s wrong with a summer treat…ice cream, traveling, swimming holes, and, for me at least, lots of live music? Feeling a little stuffed with ice cream and a little low on music, I marked my calendar to see a concert at the Old Church’s Sack Lunch Concerts, a mainstay in Portland every Wednesday at noon since the building reopened in 1968. I wrote, “Gershwin, Old Church, 12pm, free.”

I kept the date, and behind the bulky, ornate wooden doors of this magnificent building, discovered a stunning but understated interior. The design whisked me immediately to 1883, the year it was built.

It was all very informal inside. Joyce, who has volunteered at the welcome table for 30 years, handed me a simple printed program from the stack and offered to pour me a cup of coffee from a vintage percolator. She is kind and accessible, much like The Old Church itself. Standing with her hair collected in a neat bun, she made sure I knew that this happens every week. Her gracious welcome alone was worth the cash I stuffed into the glass vase for the church’s painting fund.

As Joyce was busy providing this radical hospitality to the rest of the guests, I learned all of this from John, who has attended the concerts every week for the past five years. He prefers Dixieland and country to the mix of classical, jazz, and world music that often grace the Sack Lunch stage, but he explains that the regulars attend for other reasons: “The music here is a great relief for so many people. It’s all they have outside of their daily routine.”

Three women take their programs and hot coffee to a pew on the left for a perfect view of the pianist, Barbara Amell, whose hands are busy warming up on the Steinway—an extra treat for those who were early! Two are chatty regulars from a nearby senior citizen center, the other is here for the first time but might come again next week, too. They swoon over their favorite performer here, pianist David Rothman. I told them I’d mark my calendar for his next show.

The crowd, some wearing bike helmets, others holding newspapers, and many carrying canes, begins to gather as the first Gershwin tune, Do It Again, fills the air. (I recorded a couple of snippets from the concert…)

Do It Again – sample

The pews are about half full and the only person eating lunch is Barry, a very kind but unkempt resident of downtown Portland. He ruffles through different brown paper bags to assemble a feast, but he was also dedicated to the music—humming along, taking notes on his program, and cheering right away at the end of every song.

Midway through the program I took a short walk around the hall to stretch my legs and, of course, visit the adorable 9-month-old named Morgan playing nearby with her grandparents. When I returned to my seat, Barry leaned forward to make sure I knew where we were in the program. I don’t know if he comes every week, but he welcomed me and hoped I would come again next week. He left a profound impression on me; these concerts are truly a wonderful gift to our city.

Inside the Old Church/ Jennie Baker Photography

Barry and I were both enamored of Jennie Spada’s detailed and vivid operatic interpretations of the more familiar Gershwin tunes on the program. She has sung with the Portland Opera Chorus for 20 years (“You begin measuring time in Carmens and Bohemes,” she joked) but her voice is fresh, nimble, and perfect for The Old Church’s vaulted wooden ceilings. I’ll be watching for her next recital.

The title of the program was “Gershwin Famous and Rare,” but there should have been a subtitle: “with tons of research and quirky anecdotes in between.” Barbara
Amell is a Gershwin encyclopedia, and that’s just the beginning. Her meticulously planned introductions for all 16 songs on the program were brimming with wit, knowledge, and passion. Scholarly enough to merit an admission fee, this was the cherry on top!

Barbara performed many of the vocal selections as very pianistic solos, which I had not unexpected. However, her attention to detail with the melody and delicate voicing were captivating and intimate. She brought us to her living room, which as it turns out is one of the few places she performs these days: “The Old Church is the only place in town where I give concerts because it’s free for me and the built-in audience is wonderful!”

At the last note of the program, Barry, the ladies in front, most of the audience and I showed their appreciation with a standing ovation. I usually stay seated during the oh-so-common Portland standing ovation, until my wife pulls me on my feet to join the ritual. This felt genuine, though.

No one feels out of place here at The Old Church—come late, leave early, bring a snack, dress as you like, have a cup of coffee, and leave a donation in the jar if you want. There truly is no other venue in town where you can feel this close to the performer from every seat. It’s a very rare, underappreciated, reliable gift to the music makers and lovers in our town.

Make time in your calendar for a musical treat some Wednesday afternoon soon at The Old Church. I’ll see you there.

Someone to watch over me – sample

The Old Church Sack Lunch Concerts are every Wednesday at noon, and admission is free.

2 Responses.

  1. Gina Piroli says:

    We are so glad you enjoyed your time at The Historic Old Church. We work hard to provide a variety of music genres and make this unique public gathering place inviting to everyone. We hope to see you again – maybe even at an evening concert this fall!

  2. Barbara Amell says:

    Thank you so much for your kind review of our ‘Gershwin Famous and Rare’ program, and for calling attention to the valuable contribution that The Old Church makes to the arts and to our community. I play Gershwin works and other vintage songs for senior audiences as a soloist; but Portland Opera soprano Jennie Spada and I will be repeating the ‘Gershwin Famous and Rare’ program in an altered version at the Central Library Nov. 3, 2:00 in the Collins Gallery. I look forward to personally thanking the library staff at this performance for helping me obtain unpublished Gershwin songs from the Library of Congress!

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