Downtown Lunchtime Recital Series Grand Finale

On Wednesday, May 23, 2012, First Reformed Church was invaded by about sixty children from various New Brunswick Public Schools at roughly 9:30 in the morning. The whole morning was a blitzkrieg of children taking over the sanctuary and fellowship hall—they came in droves with their heavy artillery (flutes, drums, saxophones, clarinets, oh so many clarinets) to drill (rehearse) en masse in the sanctuary.

The purpose of all this activity? The children of Livingston, Roosevelt, and Lincoln Elementary Schools, and the Jazz Band of New Brunswick Middle and High Schools, were offering their heartfelt gratitude. For years, Mrs. Agnes Crespo-Himstedt, a music teacher, musician, and recent Martha Award recipient, has been bringing her children down the street from Livingston Elementary School to experience our Lunchtime Recital Series. We, at FRC, view this as a blessing; that is, to see so many children gather in our fellowship hall to eat with us and share the beautiful sounds of classical music with other folks from the community is uplifting for all of us in the church. These children and Mrs. Crespo-Himstedt are too humble to see it this way, however. They view these recitals as a gift that the church gives freely to the community, and they felt the need to return the favor.

This is why, on Wednesday, they descended upon our sanctuary. They were offering their own concert to the community in the spirit of the Lunchtime Recitals, but with a motivation of thanksgiving. And what an exciting event this was!

The conductors were, of course, the local music teachers. There was Mrs. Crespo-Himstedt herself, who not only conducted the elementary school band, but also played a dazzling flute solo during the lovely piece, “Samba La Bamba” by William Owens. Agnes is a true pillar in the community, and she is a role model for these students as a musician, and as a persevering, diligent leader. For instance, she has been teaching in the Newark and New Brunswick Public School system for twenty-two years! This is not a small amount of time to be teaching in New Jersey city public schools.

Sharing the podium with Mrs. Crespo-Himstedt was Mrs. Radostina Velikova, a native of Bulgaria and the member of the only professional Accordion ensemble on the East Coast! What an interesting pair these two ladies make as music teachers. But the diversity does not stop there. Three other teachers offered their time and talents to help make this concert beautiful. Vladimir Antselevich, from Moscow State Conservatory, started humbly with the Russian Navy Band, next moving up the ranks through the Israel Police Band, and finally to the pinnacle position of his career: trumpeter in the New Brunswick Middle and High School jazz band (and, General Instrument teacher at McKinley School on the side, of course). What a career this man has had! Hailing from Curacao, Igor Atalita juggled his time between playing the keys for the kids, arranging most of the music on the program, and speaking Dutch to Erie! Multi-talented people never cease to amaze. Finally, there was Carlos Cordova. Mr. Cordova studied music in Puerto Rico and Boston, and most recently he earned a Latin Grammy for his recording with Raices Habaneras. He commanded the Jazz Band’s glorious performance victory. His excitement was infectious, and when he announced the title of the first piece “Drama for your Mama,” squeals of laughter and excitement came up from the little audience. We clapped, snapped our fingers, sang along, and reacted with all our facilities short of dancing in the church aisles.

The kids, the stars of the whole day, were fantastic. They executed their music with precision, seriousness of purpose and carefully-tuned
ensemble. There was not one minute when the smiles left our faces—I don’t think I speak only for myself when I say the audience felt a mixture of excitement at the large sound of the bands, joy at the recognition of familiar tunes, intrigue at the new ones, good-humored laughter at the unwieldy fingers of these new musicians, and sincere bliss for the music they made so beautifully together.

But, more deeply felt was the feeling of promise for these children. New Brunswick seems to be cultivating a generation of finely-tuned young instrumentalists! This is in no small part thanks to the teachers. These world-class musicians are leaders of the FIRST degree who are giving so much of their time and effort to molding these children into well-rounded artists, guiding them along in their quest for artistic identity.

Furthermore, I would be remiss not to mention the role our church had to play in this development. Was it not because of our Lunchtime Recital Series that many of these kids became interested in instruments in the first place? The series was the work of Janet Waanders, who for so many years has carried the gauntlet of this grant-writing, people-organizing, musician-hiring enterprise. She has made so many sacrifices and spent so many hours communicating with the state, the county, the school system, and musicians to bring classical music to these local children. Without Janet spearheading the series year after year, the event on Wednesday would not have been imaginable. Who would have thought that our pews would be filled with so many children, who wanted to come to our church to offer us the gift of music?

A fitting end to our celebration, of course, was food. And, since we are dealing with kids here, what else could we have offered besides ice cream? Thank you, Pastor Hartmut, for that brilliant idea. The young people lined up down their mess hall (am I taking the military metaphor too far here?) to claim their favorite toppings for a dessert fit for the achievement they accomplished on that day. They conquered our ears and our hearts, and we conquered their bellies. Finally, to cap off the day, a chaperone-teacher from Livingston Elementary School, Linda DeLorenzio, played The Battle Hymn of the Republic on her trumpet for us to thank us for inviting her students to be part of our series. We loved it so much that we invited her on Sunday to play for us at our Memorial Day Worship Service. And sure enough, she came.

Stay tuned for our Recital Series for the Fall. Janet will keep us in the loop as the days draw closer. In the meantime, remember what John Sykes, the President of VH1, said about music in schools: “In every successful business…there is one budget line that never gets cut. It’s called ‘Product Development’ – and it’s the key to any company’s future growth. Music education is critical to the product development of this nation’s most important resource – our children.” While we tend not to equate people with products or resources in the church, I think the idea behind this saying is clear: what we did on Wednesday, May 23 was an outgrowth of the most important facet of these children’s education. They will carry this experience with them for the rest of their lives, and it will remind them of the importance of music, of being a part of the community, and of giving back to the community.
Thanks again to everyone who helped us in this endeavor—to Joan Fekete for purchasing many of the supplies for the ice cream, to Pastor Susan, Margaret Coakley, Lolly Schenck, and others who helped serve ice cream, to the New Brunswick school teachers for their tremendous gifts, to Janet for organizing the recital series and most importantly, to the children of the New Brunswick Public School system for presenting a joyful concert of great music to us in our old church.

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