Imagine listening to a live rendition of “Amazing Grace” while sitting in the church that helped inspire the stirring hymn. Or hearing an instrumentalist perform Civil War tunes that he first played with the grandchildren of Confederate soldiers. Or attending jazz concerts in the city that inspired George Gershwin while writing Porgy and Bess.
Those are but three examples from a concert series that will debut in Charleston, S.C., Oct. 14 to celebrate the city’s rich — and often underappreciated — musical history.
The Sound of Charleston series was designed to feature music from the past three centuries — or, as the series organizers say, “From gospel to Gershwin.”
“In colonial times, Charleston was the cultural zenith in North America,” says William Schlitt, co-artistic director of the series. “The per capita wealth of Charlestonians was the highest of any city in the country.” In 1766, several amateur musicians in Charleston used their wealth to form the St. Cecilia Society, a private subscription concert series that drew some of the world’s top musical talent to the seaside city.
Today, 244 years later, the tradition continues, with 10 concerts slated from Oct. 14 to Dec. 21, 2010. Because of the city’s robust musical history, Schlitt had much to choose from in planning the concerts.
“[German Baroque composer Johann] Pachelbel’s son was one of the first organists at St. Philips Church in Charleston, so we will feature Pachelbel’s Canon,” Schlitt says.
The first shots of the Civil War were fired in Charleston Harbor. In remembrance of that turbulent time, Schlitt has tapped local musician Bart Saylor, who has played Civil War marches with grandchildren of Confederate soldiers. Saylor plays nine instruments, including the hammered dulcimer, guitar, banjo, bouzouki and mandolin.
Gershwin in Charleston
Gershwin’s famous opera, Porgy and Bess, was based on the 1925 novel Porgy by Charleston native DuBose Heyward. Gershwin spent a lot of time in the area, visiting African American churches and absorbing scenes and sounds of the city for the opera, some of which he wrote on Charleston’s Folly Beach in the 1930s.
“There’s also a significant jazz connection here that a lot of people don’t know about,” Schlitt says. “It predates the New Orleans jazz scene.” In 1891, the Rev. Daniel Jenkins founded an eponymous orphanage for homeless black boys. Jenkins took donations of musical instruments and hired two local musicians to teach the children jazz.
The Jenkins Orphanage Band played across the United States, including in the inaugural parades of presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Ann Caldwell, a local jazz vocalist who studied at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, is on the Sound of Charleston docket to help honor that history.
And then there’s “Amazing Grace.” In 1749, John Newton came to Charleston as an officer on a slave ship. During his several weeks in the city, he heard a pastor named Josiah Smith preaching at the Independent Meeting House, which later became the Circular Congressional Church. Smith’s sermons helped start Newton on the way to converting — he eventually became an Anglican minister — and his newfound religion drove him to write “Amazing Grace.”
All the concerts on the fall schedule will be held in the historic, 180-seat Circular Congregational Church. The church was founded in 1681 by a diverse group of dissenters that included English Congregationalists, Scottish Presbyterians and French Huguenots. The structure has since been rebuilt three times, most recently in 1892. The property also features Charleston’s oldest graveyard, with monuments dating to 1695.
Tickets are $16 to $28. They are available through www.soundofcharleston.com, the Charleston Visitors Center, by phone at 843-270-4903 or at the door.