Church benefit concert raises funds, hopes

Mikaela Raphael/Staff

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Church members and classical music fans gathered Tuesday night at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church for a benefit concert to support the First Congregational Church of Berkeley after a Sept. 30 fire destroyed church offices and damaged the sanctuary.

The church sold 300 concert tickets, raising $15,000 for fire-related costs that weren’t covered by insurance, according to First Congregational Music Director Derek Tam. In addition to the losses this community sustained from the fire, the congregation also suffered the blow of losing their well-recognized music sanctuary. It has launched a GoFundMe to help with repairs and is holding Sunday services at Congregation Beth El until the sanctuary — used for services as well as classical music concerts — is restored.

“All over the country, baroque musicians were freaking out,” said cellist Gretchen Claassen. “It spread like wildfire — news of the fire.”

For decades, lovers of early classical music have had a home in the First Congregational Church — or as they call it, “First Congo.”  The church hosts the biennial Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, a festival of early music. Classical music groups from the Bay Area and beyond have held concerts in the church’s sanctuary, which is noted for its acoustics and size.

“I can’t overstate how important that sanctuary was as a space,” Claassen said. “There’s no other venue (for early music) that compares.”

In addition to fire damage in the sanctuary and water damage in the library, the church’s sheet music collection was destroyed — more than 800 pieces of music that had been gathered over the last century, according to Tam.

Tam organized the benefit concert in less than two weeks. Overall, more than 50 musicians from eight ensembles donated their time to play at the benefit at St. Mark’s.

In the audience were longtime supporters of the church, including some from the Eden United Church of Christ in Hayward. Singers from the Oakland Symphony Chorus came to support the First Congregation, as did members of the Berkeley Community Chorus, which rehearsed in the sanctuary.

“It’s at times like this you really find out what really matters and who your people are … The early music community let us know how much our sanctuary means to you,” said senior minister Molly Baskette in her introduction to the concert.

Before the fire, the sanctuary provided exceptional acoustics as well as amenities such as hanging microphones that don’t block the audience’s view, said Nicholas McGegan, conductor of the Philharmonia Baroque.

Early classical music is played on 18th-century instruments that are too quiet for large concert halls, McGegan said. Because of that, there’s a shortage of concert venues like the sanctuary that hold the ideal size of audience — about 650 people, according to Jeffrey Phillips, creative director for the Philharmonia Baroque.

In St. Mark’s that night, broad pillars blocked the view for those seated in the side aisles. A tall tree of sound equipment reared between audience and stage. But the music reached to the far corners of the vaulted ceiling, and the listeners lined the pews.

Audience member Cindy Keune was hopeful about the First Congregational Church’s future.

“It will be tremendous again,” she said at the concert.

Contact Lillian Holmes at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LillianQHolmes.