- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2007

A first glance at the program for this year’s Rock Creek Festival at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rock Creek Parish, might lead you to think that the array of performers is, well, a bit out of the ordinary. After all, not too many festivals in the area juxtapose bluegrass, sacred music and jazz — and set it all in Washington’s oldest church.

“We thought it important to try to get St. Paul’s back in the consciousness of Washington,” says Graham Elliott, a native of Wales who became music director here in 1999 and founded and staged the first Rock Creek Festival just two years later.

Opening Saturday with a concert by the local bluegrass sextet Dead Men’s Hollow, over its seven-day stretch the musical frolic will present chamber music and jazz along with an art exhibition and daily lunchtime concerts.

Monday brings the internationally renowned organist Marvin Mills on the church’s new Dobson organ. On Tuesday, look for legendary British composer and conductor John Rutter, who will direct his 2003 “Mass of the Children” with full chorus and orchestra.

And Wednesday sees the debut of the chamber-sized a cappella group Orpheus, singing music of 16th- and 17th-century England and Spain. Orpheus is directed by the celebrated Philip Cave, a founding member of the Tallis Scholars who is now director of music at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria and artistic director of the Alexandria Choral Society.

“This music festival is the church’s gift to the community,” Mr. Elliott says.

A well-kept secret

Tucked away in the rolling hills of Northwest near the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is one of the best-kept secrets in Washington.

Start with the setting: a parish founded in 1712 (in the reign of Queen Anne) that built its first brick church in 1721, surrounded by a historic churchyard — the fabled Rock Creek Cemetery — whose tall trees provide a bit of shade on even the hottest summer afternoon.

Then come the acoustics: warm, resonant, and present in either the 18th-century church building or the newly renovated Great Hall nearby.

Finally, there’s the animating spirit, open and inviting, whether you are a longtime church member, a resident of the neighborhood, or just someone stopping by to hear some good music.

“It’s a beautiful secret,” says Esther Williams, the celebrated vocalist and co-founder with husband Davey Yarborough of the Washington Jazz Arts Institute. Mr. Yarborough and Miss Williams will team up for the closing concert on June 22.

“The community here is so awesome. They just embraced us,” Miss Williams says.

It’s an embrace that reaches far beyond the music you would expect to hear in church on any given Sunday.

“This is not a religious festival,” Mr. Elliott says. “We’ve got a choral Evensong, yes, but we’ve also got jazz and bluegrass.”

Even Mr. Rutter’s Mass is unusual.

“It’s not quite a simple Latin Mass,” says Mr. Elliott, a longtime friend of the British composer’s. “It incorporates later texts and other music as well.”

Master of music

Certainly, the guiding spirit of the festival is Mr. Elliott himself.

“He really reaches out to people,” says Miss Williams. “Anybody can come into that space, and he encourages the neighbors to come in and use it.”

A notable composer and organist who spent 18 years as master of music at England’s Chelmsford Cathedral, northeast of London, Mr. Elliott is the author of “Benjamin Britten: The Spiritual Dimension,” on the seminal British composer’s church music.

And he’s no stranger to the idea of festivals, having started an earlier one at Chelmsford.

But he’ll be the first to say he realized he was in for something special here, practically as soon as he set foot in the door.

“This is a unique oasis in the city of Washington,” says Mr. Elliott. “It’s so unusual and peaceful here, with an incredibly easy mix of people. There’s nothing artificial about it.”

Dead men, living

The “oasis factor” owes much to the 86-acre burying ground that surrounds the church, the celebrated Rock Creek Cemetery, a place of winding drives past early-20th-century mausoleums and countless smaller stones that tell touching stories.

Once reserved for members of the parish, the cemetery is a tourist attraction in itself: It is the last resting place of many of Washington’s elite and home to one of the most expressive works of American sculpture — Augustus St. Gaudens’ memorial to Marian Hooper Adams, wife of historian and author Henry Adams, also interred there.

So it’s fitting that the festival’s opening performance is by Dead Men’s Hollow, whose repertoire goes well beyond bluegrass to include old-time music, ballads, early folk songs, and even a blues number or two.

“It’s colloquial and secular music in a setting that’s neither colloquial nor secular,” says founding member Mike Clayberg.

And you might expect to hear a little something extra, thanks in part to the group’s close harmonies and personal spin on familiar tunes.

“It’s a different type of music,” Mr. Clayberg says. “We try to do a sort of end run around the centuries.”

Then again, the smaller, more intimate space at St. Paul’s is perfect for the audience rapport that Dead Men’s Hollow seems to spark.

The British tradition

Of course, the place is practically tailor made for the kind of music that you would expect from this setting — choral music in the British tradition. St. Paul’s has its own eight-voice professional choir. Listen to it warm up in the newly renovated church, though, and you’re likely to think its members number more than eight, so richly textured is the sound.

Smaller spaces like St. Paul’s are also perfect for chamber music, which is one reason why the District’s own Fessenden Ensemble will be featured at the Festival.

“There’s something special about live performance,” says Emil George, Fessenden’s artistic director. “You have to experience it in order to understand it fully.”

The versatile ensemble likes to experiment, both with combinations of instruments and in arrangements of pieces that might be more closely associated with larger groups. So this chamber music is more than piano quartets and string trios.

“There’s so much chamber music that isn’t performed,” says Mr. George. “We want to show the variety that’s possible.”

Mr. George, who lives, appropriately, on Fessenden Street in Northwest, came up with the idea of a group devoted to chamber music about seven years ago. They’ve played a variety of venues across town, but part of the attraction of St. Paul’s is the incredible acoustics of its Great Hall.

“There’s no better hall in town,” he says. “And there’s always a post-concert reception where we can talk to the patrons. Talk about a wonderful evening.”

Neighborhood choristers

Another attraction of St. Paul’s is its outreach to the community. The parish and Mr. Elliott have made a point of inviting area schoolchildren to concerts and demonstrations at the church and Great Hall.

One extension of that is Monday’s lunchtime concert by Hyattsville’s Ottley Music School. The school, which is planning a Caribbean tour this year, has participated in the festival since 2005.

And even an artist as well known as Mr. Rutter will find time to stop by to listen to the D.C. Boys Choir, which will perform at lunch on Tuesday. The choir was formed in 1993 by Eleanor Stewart, a veteran of more than 30 years of teaching music in the D.C. public schools.

“Boys are special,” says Mrs. Stewart, who has taken her troupe on two international tours and has been invited to China next year for the pre-Olympics festivities. “I’ve always felt that I have a special calling to work with boys.”

During a recent recital at St. Paul’s, the D.C. Boys Choir sang a varied program of works that included pieces by Bach and Handel, a Hebrew folk tune and various spirituals, the last with signing, all in the original languages.

And former choir members, such as Darnell Roulhac, now studying vocal performance at the Boston Conservatory, frequently return as soloists.

Watching Mrs. Stewart put the choir members through their paces is itself a revelation. Not anyone can marshal a force with just a nod of a head or crook of a finger, but Mrs. Stewart can coax some pretty impressive sounds from the 30-some boys who troop into St. Paul’s to practice a couple of times a week after school.

“She’s such an excellent person,” says seventh-grader Brandon Greer, the choir’s captain. “This choir truly reaffirms already taught values for me.”

Sonic textures

This year, festivalgoers will also have the opportunity to enjoy a new sonic centerpiece: the church’s new pipe organ, built in 2004 to Mr. Elliott’s exact specifications.

“An organ is almost human,” says Mr. Elliott. “It takes a certain amount of time for the pipes to start working together.”

So did Mr. Elliott send out to Britain to find an organ that would fit his requirements for a signature sound? No indeed. The new organ at St. Paul’s, complete with a case reminiscent of that in an 18th-century church, was built by the Dobson Pipe Organ Builders Ltd. of Lake City, Iowa.

It may not be the largest organ in the District, but few other organs in town have tones and textures that so neatly fill the space. That’s why Mr. Mills, who recently helped inaugurate the much larger Dobson concert organ at the new Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, is looking forward to getting his hands, literally, on the one at St. Paul’s.

“They say the most important stop on the organ is the room that it’s in,” Mr. Mills says.

For his Monday recital, Mr. Mills has chosen a varied program designed to make the best use of the special characteristics of the Dobson instrument.

“These are works that needs a space like this one to really sing,” he says. “They are wonderfully soaring, lyrical pieces that are a bit off the beaten track.”

These include a pedal-only set of variations on a theme of Paganini by the composer George Thalben-Ball (1896-1987), a natural showpiece for a setting in which the organ is up front and center rather than tucked away in the back of the hall.

“Organ music needs a space with a reverberation,” says Mr. Mills. “And this is a really great space to play in.”

A jazz flourish

That’s true for jazz as well. Just check out the Washington Jazz Arts Institute’s lunchtime performances on Wednesday and Thursday. The brainchild of Mr. Yarborough and Miss Williams, themselves fixtures on the national and international jazz circuit, the institute trains some of the best young performers in the Greater Washington area.

“We’re a mentoring and music program,” says Miss Williams. “And it’s a pleasure to play in a place that’s so obviously committed to the community.”

For the festival’s closing concert on June 22, Miss Williams and Mr. Yarborough promise a jazz extravaganza featuring the music of Washington musicians and composers. They hope it will provide the punctuation for a special festival.

“What I desperately want is that we as a community are seen to be welcoming,” says Mr. Elliott. “Our gates are down and our arms are open.”

Festival’s musical mix

There’s something for everyone in the happy jumble of jazz, bluegrass, chamber music, organ concerts and gallery shows — all in a sacred space — at the Rock Creek Festival, a gift to its community from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rock Creek Parish.

The frolic opens Saturday and runs through June 22 at the church, at Rock Creek Church Road and Webster Street Northwest. Admission to evening events is $10 to $20; lunchtime concerts are free, with donations accepted. For complete information call 202/726-2080 or see stpaulsrockcreek. org.

Here’s a schedule, by date:

June 16

{bullet} Bluegrass concert: Local sextet Dead Men’s Hollow with touches of old-time music, ballads, folk songs, and blues. 7:30 p.m.

June 17

{bullet} Festival choral Evensong: Evening prayer, sung by the choir of St. Paul’s. 4 p.m.

{bullet} Reception and art exhibition opening: “Young Talent,” curated by local artist Stevens Jay Carter, and “Under the Gaze of St. Paul,” presented by Art Enables, an art program for area adults with developmental disabilities. In the Gallery. 5:30 p.m.

June 18

{bullet} Lunchtime music in the Gallery: The Ottley Music School of Hyattsville. 12:15 p.m. Light lunch available at modest cost Monday-Thursday.

{bullet} Celebrity organ recital: Marvin Mills in selected works, including Thalben-Ball’s “Variations on a Theme of Paganini for Pedals.” 7:30 p.m.

June 19

{bullet} Lunchtime music: The D.C. Boys Choir. 12:15 p.m.

{bullet} John Rutter’s “Mass of the Children”: The Columbia Collegiate Chorale, the choir of St. Paul’s, the Children’s Chorus of Washington, the Bel Canto Chorus and the New England Symphonic Ensemble of Columbia Union College, directed by Mr. Rutter. 7:30 p.m.

June 20

{bullet} Lunchtime music: The Washington Jazz Arts Institute. 12:15 p.m.

{bullet} Choral concert: The Marriage of England and Spain — Music for Queen Mary Tudor and King Philip II. The a capella singing group Orpheus, made up of some of the area’s finest singers, debuts under the direction of Philip Cave. 7:30 p.m.

June 21

{bullet} Lunchtime music: The Washington Jazz Arts Institute. 12:15 p.m.

{bullet} Chamber concert: The Fessenden Ensemble in works by Haydn and Brahms. 7:30 p.m.

June 22

{bullet} Jazz finale: The Davey Yarborough Big Band with Esther Williams in the music of D.C. 7:30 p.m.

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