After 18 years in the choir of the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, Clarence Curry is hearing something new.
“Before, it was hard to hear each other. Now we can blend together easier,” Curry said after singing this month in the reopened sanctuary.
Closed for nearly a year, the sanctuary has undergone a $1.5 million acoustical and structural transformation.
These changes will enable the church to accommodate symphony orchestras, enormous choirs, and entertainers seeking a 650-seat performance venue.
They will find an improved audio system and theatrical lighting of a chancel that once felt tomb-like.
“We are hoping to have a lot more community concerts here in this space,” said Pastor David Smazik. He said collaborations are being explored with the Mayo Performing Arts Center, a fellow member of the Morristown Cultural District.
The venue passed its first test on Wednesday, when 84 musicians and dancers from the Scot Symphonic Band of the College of Wooster (Ohio) filled the sanctuary with sounds of Scotland.
“I was afraid it might be boomy, but it wasn’t,” said conductor Nancy Ditmer.
In four prior visits, she had difficulty shoehorning her kilt-clad orchestra onto the chancel. Not this time. Everyone fit quite nicely on stage, and dancers had ample elbow- (and leg-) room in front.
Wednesday’s program included bagpipes, brass and an extended tuba solo. The sanctuary acoustics were up to the challenge, Ditmer said.
“I would describe them as resonant. You get a lot of clarity in what you’re doing. It’s really easy to hear everything.”
The Scot Symphonic Band in Morristown: Click top left icon to toggle through video playlist:
‘FRESH AND TRADITIONAL’
The upgrades were the last part of a $5 million capital project that also funded major improvements to the Presbyterian Parish House on South Street, where worship services were held in the refurbished gymnasium while the sanctuary was renovated.
While carpets and upholstery of pews and minister chairs are new in the sanctuary, some upgrades are more than cosmetic.
The majestic curved ceiling has undergone extensive work to secure 565 century-old rosettes that were threatening to fall on congregants.
Morristown’s new concert hall. Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click/hover on images for captions:
All funds were raised from church members, noted Carolyn Crosthwaite, who chaired the committee that oversaw the project. In the past, the Presbyterians and three other Morristown congregations received historic preservation grants from Morris County for exterior repairs; that program recently was halted by the courts.
The Presbyterian Church is Morristown’s oldest house of worship, pre-dating the American Revolution. General George Washington is said to have taken communion here. The church bequeathed the historic Morristown Green to a trust for the public’s enjoyment.
Honoring this history while meeting the needs of 21st-century churchgoers weighed heavily on the renovations committee, Crosthwaite said.
“We had to make it new and fresh, but hold onto the traditions,” she said.
“We are a traditional mainline congregation that wants to be vital in 2019,” added Smazik.
Physically, this was a massive and meticulous undertaking.
More than half the 4,000 pipes of the church’s thunderous Austin organ were disassembled to accommodate the renovations below, which began after Easter 2018.
Some pews were removed and the chancel was extended about 10 feet forward, with steps stretching across most of the front that can be used when the choir wants to achieve a more intimate interaction with the audience.
Previously, the organ and pulpit dominated the center of the chancel, and the chorus was split into right and left sides.
Now, the organ keyboard is off to the right, enabling the choir to line the back of the stage, on portable risers, beneath the organ. New speakers behind the choristers also help them hear sermons more clearly.
Storage rooms have replaced the choir risers that flanked the chancel. The pulpit, piano and organ keyboard console all can be rolled inside these rooms before special events. New wooden panels and moldings carefully have been matched to resemble existing pieces.
‘LIKE A CATHEDRAL’
Members’ expectations ran high ahead of the reopening.
“I feel like they were met,” said Matt Webb, the church music director, after leading his 40-person choir in the inaugural service at the reopened sanctuary.
He’s looking forward to a piano/cello recital on April 14, 2019, and to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on April 28. That concert will feature a 40-piece orchestra and a 100-voice chorus from the church and Drew University, where Webb teaches.
Organist Kevin Graf already is a fan of the resonant acoustics. “I love it,” he said after closing the service with the postlude from Louis Vierne’s Symphony No 1.
The Scot Symphonic Band christens revamped chancel of the Presbyterian Church in Morristown. Slideshow by Kevin Coughlin; click/ hover on images for captions:
Ed Goellner of Harding has attended services at the Presbyterian Church for 40 years. He appreciates the blend of old and new.
“They haven’t changed the basic character of the place. It still feels like the same worship space,” with better sound, he said. “The ceiling is magnificent.”
Even the Tiffany windows seem brighter, observed church member Ruth Vanderpoel. She especially likes the reconfigured chancel. Men and women of the choir no longer oppose each other like bleacher creatures in left- and right field.
“They’re singing to us, instead of at each other,” she said.
That’s required a few adjustments for the choristers. They must listen more closely to each other, Clarence Curry explained. And they must e-nun-ci-ate.
“Now, as musicians we have to be very clear with our consonants. It picks up everything. It’s like a concert hall, a cathedral.”
Which makes a traditional experience fresh for the singers. Not that choir wasn’t fun before.
“This just makes it more glorious,” Curry said.