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Traditional music flourishes at Charleston’s Bethel

CHARLESTON – What is generally called “contemporary music” heard at Bethel United Methodist? No way.

The church, first dedicated in its present location in 1798, capitalizes on its historic interest and traditions and raises the roof – and goose bumps – with its rich-toned, recently built organ and new lively acoustics.

Actually, Bethel has tried contemporary services twice, according Director of Music Ministries and organist Gregory Jones. It didn’t fit, but traditional music mixed with “modern” is not only a hit with tourists and long-time members, but with young adults as well.

Getting to the lively acoustics took a disaster – $3 million worth of termite repairs. When it was all finished, there were beautiful hardwood floors instead of the red carpet they were used to.

Charleston’s Cultural Affairs Council has lauded Bethel UMC’s acoustics. As a result of the new sound, the church will be the venue for 17 or more events during the on-going Spoleto festival, the city’s annual international cultural season. “Spoleto is so avant-garde,” Jones said. Bethel is offering traditional programs, in the form of chamber music and string quartets and an opera recital.

Jones, who has served Bethel 22 years, also is offering a wedding resources concert. “What can you do colorfully on a low budget? An organ and solo violin or an organ and oboe,” he suggested. The concert should be a hit as Charleston is a top wedding destination. Trumpeters charge too much, he suggested. “An oboe can do it all the trumpet literature.”

Jones has a chancel choir of almost 40, but he also has enjoyed talented trombone and trumpet players. “The musicians come to Bethel because of the (organ’s) bass pipes. “The organ is cutting edge. It was built in 2002 with lots of bass pedal,” he said.

Most organs around today are baroque revival instruments that hit the South in 1960 to 1985. They’re very bright and clear, but many cases come across as shrill,” Jones said. “Is it a coincidence baroque (organs) were followed by a counter movement of contemporary music?” Jones asked naming one large organ in North Carolina that went silent to make way for guitars.

During the long renovations at Bethel, worship was in the fellowship hall. “It was torture for 22 months. With endowments to hire symphony musicians and a grand piano, they made it, but they are still trying to regain some people, Jones said.

“American organists neglected the great body of church music,” Jones said, “bringing in symphonies, opera themes and romantic music to churches. In the 1960s, there was a serious movement to bring back the sacred literature, but churches “got very rigid. Sentimentality was looked down upon.” Examples of sentimentality he gave are “Blessed Assurance,” one he likes, and songs from the Cokesbury Hymnal.

As a 6-year-old, Jones was sitting in a cinderblock Methodist church out from Brunswick, Ga. There was a young temptress beside him with Juicy Fruit gum to offer, but he looked down front to the single instrument, a piano, and his family’s friends singing in the choir and heard an inner voice, “Look down there, this is what you’re supposed to be doing. I got it. Church music was all I wanted to do.”

Jones’ parents saw that he had piano lessons and, later, organ lessons. Family vacations were to all the contiguous 48 states via an RV. “I have gone to church everywhere because I was a church nerd,” he said. “The only organ my father knew about was what he heard in broadcasts of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, so he drove us to Salt Lake City to see it. As a 40-year-old, I can appreciate what a visionary my father was.”

When they started doing the family shopping in Savannah, his mother took him into old churches there. “I believe old churches and cemeteries are highly charged because of the love and grief there.”

That love of churches has driven him to visit many European churches, but some visits were not without disappointment for Jones. Too often, he found two nuns and guitars instead of organ music.

But in Amsterdam, he found a foundation for the preservation of Gregorian Plainsong. The churches were full of people. A priest told him young people showed up with recordings of the new plainsong hit, “Chant,” and demanded the music. In Paris, he began to see posters advertising full masses. “I’d get permission to sit in the corner and watch (the music director) work. In the choir, there would be a banker, a jeweler and a prostitute. The church was full of people who were singing.”

When does a church musician worship? “When I am text-painting the hymn. And 7:30 Wednesday nights. I love choir rehearsal. I love the laboratory there and I cannot shut off my soul until 1 a.m.”

Jones directs a Cokesbury Chorale, church members “in the vicinity of retirement age,”  the Bethel Junior Choristers and the Gallery Bell Choir, in addition to his involvement in various Charleston music events. Jones said there are no paid singers. “I’d rather have a group who really wants to be there. It’s hard to mix volunteers and paid. Any choir has cliques and you have to break them up.”

In addition to his beloved organ teacher on St. Simons, Jones adored a former Bethel organist who served 27 years, Elizabeth Rumpel. “I hear you’re playing Mendelssohn (“The Wedding Song,” often the recessional) and Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” (the “Wedding March,” a.k.a. “Bridal Chorus” and often the processional), the late Ms. Rumpel told him after she had summoned him to her home. Then she proceeded to tell him it wasn’t done at Bethel. “I would use it in a minute,” Jones said, “but secular music in general, I don’t want. Martin Luther used barroom music and folk ballads, but I think it can be taken to excess. I am a traditionalist.” Whatever Jones is playing, Bethel “is loaded with college students,” he said.

Among Jones favorites are Mendelssohn’s “He is watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps …” and ‘This is My Father’s World.’ I love nature; ‘…in the rustling grass I hear him pass.’ God is in everything. Look around you.”

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