Paul Perry’s mission: Give his listeners a glimpse of Heaven during free mini-concerts this month in Grass Valley, marking the pre-Christmas season of Advent.
The concerts, offered each Wednesday through Dec. 19 as a respite from the Christmas rush, have become a tradition at Peace Lutheran Church, where Perry is organist.
And, they are among a broad range of musical expressions of faith and festivity at the church during the Christmas season, which extends into early January.
“Peace Lutheran Church is the sound of music in our community,” said congregation President Gerry Mitchelmore, a Lake Wildwood resident.
In the large sanctuary near downtown, Perry – the founder of Nevada City-based Music in the Mountains – commands a digital Allen organ with three upper keyboards, 41 buttons and 56 stops on the upper console. With his stocking feet, Perry simultaneously operates a fourth keyboard and three more rows of stops at the organ’s base.
Perry calls the organ “a beast,” but he makes it purr and alternately roar with soul-moving interpretations of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” Handel’s “Messiah” and traditional Christmas carols.
He chooses music for the mini-concerts that is “recognized throughout the world as a great piece for organ,” Perry said. “I also look for new arrangements of traditional carols.”
And he especially enjoys playing “unadorned” arrangements, “the way we learned them when we were children,” Perry said. “That speaks to us…
“I’m trying to give (my listeners) concert music that they won’t hear elsewhere,” Perry added.
Each half-hour concert of seasonal music will be followed by a half-hour of prayer and meditation. They start at 4:45 p.m. every Wednesday through Dec. 19 at the church at 828 W. Main St., near downtown.
‘Coming into being’
More than a decade ago, Perry teamed up with the church pastor, the Rev. Richard Johnson, to offer the free midweek concerts.
They are drawing on a tradition that goes back to fifth-century France: The observance of Advent, or the four weeks before Christmas, is a time for prayer and reflection to prepare for the coming of the Christ child, said Johnson, who has a doctoral degree in church history.
Advent stems from the Latin for “coming into being.”
Even older is the tradition of evening prayers – called vespers from the Latin word for “evening” – which harks to the Jewish practice of praying at the start and end of the day, Johnson added. Such prayers acknowledge the limits of human control over our lives.
“These two themes – Advent and vespers – really go together in so many ways, especially as we move to physical darkness with the winter solstice,” Johnson said. “They teach us to look beyond the present.”
And both these practices are even more relevant today in a time of holiday frenzy and consumption, Johnson said.
“It’s a season that trains us to slow down, be quiet, listen and watch,” Johnson said. “We don’t have to be always doing, doing, doing.”
Faithful music for Advent vespers
From Perry’s earliest musical days, Advent music drawing from the great European composers was a yearly ritual.
Perry started playing organ when he was about 12 and landed his first professional gig at 15 as the back-up organist for an Episcopal church in Miami, where he grew up in the 1940s, he said. Perry studied with a woman who was the organist for “the big Methodist church downtown,” Perry added. “She was a recital organist, and she did Lenten and Advent recitals.”
Following that same path, Perry left a dream job as a rehearsal pianist with the San Francisco Opera more than three decades ago to move to Nevada City and start Music in the Mountains. His goal then was to bring “high-level music-making” to a rural area, he said.
That impulse continues to fuel his now-annual concert series in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Perry is known for his raise-the-rafters crescendos when he plays the organ for the church’s two traditional Sunday services (he also plays piano for a more casual Sunday service). Those attending the mini-concerts can expect to hear some of that, he said.
“I had one woman tell me (after a Sunday worship service), ‘When you played that last hymn, I felt like the heavens had opened up, and I was swallowed up!’” Perry recalled with a chuckle. “For one half-hour period, I want to take (my listeners) to Heaven, and still somehow get the mystical side of the season, and that’s more contemplative.”
Space for music
It’s a natural for Peace Lutheran Church in Grass Valley to express members’ faith through music.
Martin Luther saw music as “a gift from God” and “essential” to a life of faith; Luther also composed music and wrote lyrics, said Peace’s Rev. Richard Johnson.
Peace hosts secular community musical groups and events in addition to its own 30-member choir, its Bells of Peace handbell choir and other in-house musical programs:
— Music in the Mountains Chorale rehearsals (several church members also sing in the chorale)
— Music in the Mountains Young Musicians Competition venue (church members Liesel and Rebekah Shuholm have been finalists)
— Foothill Children’s Chorus office, rehearsals and venue
— Grass Valley Male Voice Choir rehearsals
— In addition to the midweek concerts, Peace will observe Advent during traditional Sunday worship services at 8 and 11 a.m.; they include Perry’s organ music and singing by the Peace Choir. A more casual service blending traditional format and modern music and language is offered at 9:30 a.m.
Trina Kleist is a freelance writer. She can be reached at (530) 575-6132.