Commentary: At church concert, an interlude of joy

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The Musicalia Ensemble at St. John's Presbyterian Church. Members are Iris Blanco-Urgelles on piano, Cassia Harvey on cello, and her sister Myanna Harvey on violin.

Beth Kephart

is the cofounder of Juncture memoir workshops (www.junctureworkshops.com)

It isn't far from my house, and so I walk, my father beside me, down streets I half possess after all these years. My father hurries to keep up. I hurry to slow down. The night air works against us as the amber lights in living rooms tick on and on and on.

Music has been promised; it waits. The felted hammer on piano strings. The angle of a bow against strings. The horizontal song of a flute. The razz of drums. A flirty mezzo-soprano. It is the fourth concert in a Sunday evening series hosted by the clapboard neighborhood church - St. John's Presbyterian - and it is free. Brahms, Chopin, Grieg, and Puccini were performed in October. Wagner, Schumann, and Chopin in November. Christmas songs at Christmastime, and now, tonight, the Americans are being tuned up and in: Cole Porter. Leonard Bernstein. George Gershwin.

A church is a place of gathering. A church is a stage. A church is light filtered through, or reflected by, leaded panes of colored glass. A church is shelter, and here, in this church, on these Sunday evenings, song is the faith and melody is the prayer.

It didn't just happen here - this annealing, necessary reprieve in an age of shards. It happened because Iris Blanco-Urgelles, the director of music at St. John's, understands the permeable, unifying power of lyric and beat. Blanco-Urgelles arrived at Lancaster with her parents from her home of Cuba at the age of 22, speaking no English. Missing the country of her birth, where she began studying the piano at an early age, she nonetheless persisted here, soon receiving multiple music degrees from Temple and West Chester Universities and finding the man, a musician and stonemason, she would marry.

Blanco-Urgelles won the Jacobs Music Company Steinway Award for Outstanding Graduating Pianist and the Connie Murray Pedagogy Award. She played in the production of Carmina Burana with the Reading Choral Society. She began a thriving practice in private music lessons. She founded the Musicalia Ensemble with two extraordinary sisters - the cellist Cassia Harvey and the violinist Myanna Harvey - and with them won first place this past October at the American Protege International Competition of Romantic Music. The ensemble will perform at Carnegie Hall this spring.

But right now, on this night of American music, accompanied by a flutist named Julia Petters, a percussionist named Kevin Walker, and a singer named Lara Kennedy, Musicalia performs for us.

My father and I have a front-pew seat. The community - friends and strangers, church members and not - builds behind us, anticipating. Blanco-Urgelles' childhood teacher, Olga Valiant, who has performed throughout Latin America, Europe, and the Caribbean, is here among us, and to get things started, she takes the stage to play Gershwin's "Three Preludes." Valiant lifts her hands to opposite ends of the ebony and ivory. She hovers; the audience stills. When she lowers her fingers to the very first notes, the wide, transparent sleeves of her blouse billow like butterfly wings.

A four-hand duet ensues - Bernstein's "Something's Coming" from West Side Story. "I Feel Pretty" is next and then "Maria," and now the performers are moving, with ease, through the program, telling us stories about the songs, smiling through their interpretations, accepting the enthusiasms of the rest of us with grace.

Beside me, my father, no longer hurried, smiles. Behind me the audience sighs, audibly, then rises to its feet, thrillingly, as the musicians deliver a resounding version of Gershwin's Andante and Finale from "Rhapsody in Blue," and at the end of every song, Blanco-Urgelles turns from her piano and looks back over what she and her musicians have wrought with a sly look of disbelief, as if she cannot believe her good fortune.

As if she cannot believe our disbelief at ours.

On a Friday morning a few weeks after the American Trio has been performed, Blanco-Urgelles and the two Harvey sisters come together in the sanctuary of St. John's to rehearse their next show - a compilation of folk songs from Japan and Zambia, Romania and Cuba, Korea and Turkey, Scotland and Argentina, and, yes, America, too. "It's pretty, right?" Blanco-Urgelles will say and the sisters will agree or disagree, speak of minor keys and tempos, discuss the power and humanity of folk songs, of personal sadness set to universal keys.

In between songs, and especially at the end, the musicians stop to speak of their own stories. There's the two-octave piano Blanco-Urgelles' mother once built for her (just a piece of wood, no actual keys, for there were no means, in Cuba, for a real piano). There are the students that gather at the home of the Harvey sisters in North Philadelphia. There's Cassia's musical publishing business, and Myanna's heroic teaching schedule, and the pleasures that are derived from listening to one another as they play.

The winter sun falls through the stained glass and pools. I sit. I listen. I watch as each instrument waits and as, again, each instrument speaks, and I think of how, more and more, we travel far to be near, in this church, on this street, in our country, in these times.

The St. John's Concert Series, 217 Berkley Rd., Devon, will perform "Folk Songs Around the World" at 5 p.m. Feb. 19. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.stjohnsdevon.com.

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