Notes of the past

One of the Asheville music scene’s best-kept secrets happens not in a funky unmarked alley behind an art gallery, but on top of a prominent hill just south of downtown.

Go past the National Historic Register plaque outside, walk through the cheery red wood doors, pass rows of gleaming wood pews, approach an altar carved “Holy Holy Holy” beneath an astounding Neo-Gothic vaulted ceiling — and you’ve arrived at the nave of the century-old St. Matthias Episcopal Church.

This is the surprising setting for “First Sundays at St. Matthias” — an increasingly popular series of chamber-music concerts that give musicians an ideal place to showcase one of their favorite forms of music.

What began as a casual gathering of friends is now a full-fledged public attraction that just might be the hottest free ticket in town. The driving force behind the concert series is Ron Lambe, musical director and organist at St. Matthias.

“Music is an essential part of worship,” he proclaims. “It raises our spirits — and brings us all together.” In fact, some people think music may be one of St. Matthias’ most important missions in the new millennium.

“The church’s acoustics are exquisite,” Lambe enthuses. “The design of the building and the materials — all that exposed wood on the ceilings and floor and the plaster walls. Perfect acoustics for chamber music because you can hear all the instruments in an ensemble, yet hear each one distinctly.” (“Our gift from God — those acoustics,” one longtime member of the congregation has noted, adding, “That’s why we have to share it with as many people as we can.”)

Chamber music — performed by small ensembles, usually without a conductor — was originally designed to be played in private rooms (chambers) in homes. Classical musicians love chamber music because all the instruments are equally important, yet each has a distinctive “voice.” Audiences love it for the rare opportunity to be within a few feet of the musicians during a concert. The resulting intimacy is startling, especially if you’re not used to the unmatched pleasure of live, unamplified music.

Last month’s concert, conducted by Paul Templon and featuring dazzling soprano Ruth Sieber Johnson, featured a 16-voice chorus — but the sound was so full and rich, it sounded like 60. In such a spiritual setting, the experience becomes almost transcendent. At three o’clock in the afternoon, sunlight streams through the majestic stained-glass windows, changing color subtly on the shoulders of the crowd as the clouds pass by outside. “What more appropriate place,” an ardent audience member noted, “to raise voices and play to your heart’s delight than in the house of God?”

However, “It all began as a lark,” Lambe reveals. “The first concert was just my cello teacher, Ron Clearfield, and me. And people loved it.”

Encouraged, Lambe put together a string quartet with three other friends — violinists Nancy Jean Hunkins and Judy Vlietstra, and violist Brenda Phetteplace. Rehearsing in the church, they named themselves The St. Matthias String Quartet. These four remain the core of the series, playing in almost half the concerts.

“One friend called another … [who] called another,” Lambe continues, “and here we are.”

Most of the performers come from Asheville’s large community of talented amateur musicians, plus a few professionals — and all donate their talents.

“If we had to pay all the musicians who performed in the choral concert, for example, almost 30 people — it would cost over $7,500,” notes Lambe.

Offerings are accepted, however — in fact, appreciative audiences have donated enough to give a substantial boost to efforts to restore the historic church.

“The series put new lights in the chancel, repaired the old pipe organ and replastered and painted the interior of the church. It’s made a huge difference. … It’s a triple win/win situation,” says Lambe. “The musicians get to perform in a wonderful space, the audience enjoys it, and the very small congregation wins with help that eases their financial burden. And they appreciate people coming into their ‘home.’ That’s why we’ve added a hospitality reception to the concert — for the congregation to meet new people.”

Founded before the end of the Civil War and first known as “Freemen’s Church,” St. Matthias is believed to be the oldest historically black congregation in Asheville. “We were a mission [to Trinity Church] first,” explains member Lola Thomas. “Most churches back then started as a mission.” The church itself, completed in 1896, was built by a well-known local contractor, James Vester Miller, whose mother was a slave. Its now-priceless floor-to-ceiling pipe organ was installed a year later.

In the early days, St. Matthias was a thriving community center in the city’s East End neighborhood, especially important because it offered free education to black children before the establishment of public schools. Today, St. Matthias is home to a mixed-race congregation of barely 50 souls who fill only a few pews in a church built to seat 500. But here, history is very much alive. Grandmothers in the congregation continually refer to the church’s past in terms of their grandmothers, relating the details of old stories as clearly as if they’d happened last week. Some folks christened at St. Matthias over half a century ago speak proudly about having their grandchildren and great-grandchildren christened here.

Several current members grew up in the church, went north (as so many African-Americans did to seek their livelihoods), then returned to Asheville and to the church of their childhood. One of those returnees is Doris Daniels, who reminisces fondly about the days in the 1940s when she and her teenage friends in the Altar Guild gathered every Saturday to clean the church.

“We didn’t have all the things to do that kids have today,” she laughs. “Cleaning the church together was fun. We loved it.” When Daniels returned to Asheville, she also returned to the activity that had once so keenly connected her to the church. “Everyone who comes here is astounded at how beautiful this old church looks,” she says. “It’s not from a high-priced cleaning crew, I can tell you that! It’s my good friends and me on Saturdays.”

There are certainly fancier Episcopal churches in town, the kind that can afford a full-time priest and a big parking lot. So what brings folks to St. Matthias? “Family,” goes the repeated refrain. “I’m so glad to get back to these brothers and sisters,” says one member. Some in the congregation are “cradle” Episcopalians. “I was born knowing how to genuflect,” notes one member. Others found St. Matthias after a long search. “This is the first church I felt at home,” says one churchgoer who was born to another faith. “I’d run up on some hard luck — but this church brought me back to God, because the people here accepted me. … It just does something to you.”

Watching Lambe coach a fledgling choir of congregation members at a recent Wednesday-evening Lenten service, longtime member David Jones observed, “All of St. Matthias is going to be jumping again.”

“We see ourselves as a church who wants to bring people together,” says the Rev. Jim Abbott, the church’s new part-time priest-in-charge and an enthusiastic concert supporter. “We are very interested in expanding our musical offerings. The more variety of music we can offer and the more community participation we can create, the better we like it.”

Do I hear a jazz series in St. Matthias’ future? “Jazz, gospel, drumming, opera. Sure,” says Lambe. “We just need interested musicians to help us put it all together. All it takes to get another series going is the musicians who want to do it.”

“First Sundays at St. Matthias” happens next on Sunday, April 1 at 3 p.m. “Two Trumpets and an Organ” will feature trumpeters Bill Ross and Casey Coppenbarger, who play with the Biltmore Brass Quintet and the Smoky Mountain Ensemble, and Stephen Klein, the organist with Trinity Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville, who also plays with the early-music group Cullowhee Consort. For more information, call St. Matthias Musical Director Ron Lambe at 252-0643 or e-mail him at Ronlambe@buncombe.main.nc.us. St. Matthias is located just off South Charlotte Street, on the hill across from the Asheville Public Works Building (1 Dundee St.). There’s plenty of parking on nearby streets; come early for the best pew. Reception follows.

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