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Heavenly Music at St. Luke

Pipe organ, acoustics make church preferred spot for performers and recordings

The phrase “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” takes on a whole new meaning at St. Luke Catholic Church in McLean.

Home to the “Music in McLean” concert series that kicked off Sunday, the church is home to an acoustically vibrant sanctuary and a gleaming pipe organ that provides clear, warm sounds throughout the church.

In fact, the sound and quality of music produced in St. Luke is so good and clear, many musicians choose to not only perform but record in the sanctuary.

“It’s a magical space,” said Bailey Whiteman, assistant to the music director at St. Luke. “You put musicians down in that space, and it just sounds amazing.”

The sanctuary, with its hardwood floor, gray brick walls and lightly colored wooden pews, may not look like it would be a great place for musical performances, Whiteman said. “The sound there is just wonderful. And it doesn’t matter where you sit, the sound has brightness and clarity and sounds really nice.”

The range of music played at the church varies for both concerts and services, from classical and Renaissance pieces to contemporary Christian and vocal ensembles.

“Some ensembles have a religious leaning, and there are others, like the Washington Symphonic Brass, that play anything,” Whiteman said.

Musical director Paul Skevington said the organ, which was installed in 1998, caused the acoustics in the church to be modified in order to better reflect the sound in the 700-person-capacity sanctuary.

“While the organ was being put in, we lifted the foam out of the ceiling that soaked up the sound, which greatly improved the acoustics, “ he said. “Every seat is a good seat. The sound is even throughout the room.”

THE ORGAN was built into a slanted wall of the sanctuary, allowing the music to be projected out into the room evenly. On the front of the organ, pipes looking like angel’s trumpets were installed to shoot the music out into the sanctuary.

“In some places, the sound might be incredible on stage and not nearly as alive in the audience, but it’s great in here from the audience’s standpoint too,” Skevington said. “Somehow, the audience and the musicians are all together, hearing the same sound.”

Skevington’s wife, Kathleen Skevington, also spends a lot of time with the music program at St. Luke and agrees that the sound quality there is quite special.

“The audience can really respond to the music because they’re right there,” she said.

Unfortunately, the Skevingtons worry that many people could be missing out of the musical experience at St. Luke simply because they don’t know what’s available so close to home.

“The community here is very welcoming, from the pastor and staff to the parishioners,” Paul Skevington said.

“We’re just a quarter-mile inside the Beltway, and there’s plenty of free parking,” Kathleen Skevington said. “ People come here to really enjoy music. The first concert I heard here, I couldn’t believe how professional it sounded,” she said.

“It felt like we were at the Kennedy Center,” she said.

More that 20 CDs have been recorded in the sanctuary over the past six years, Paul Skevington said. “ It’s quiet, you don’t get any road or airplane noise, and the acoustics are true, evenly amplifying the bass and treble,” he said.

The first group to perform for the concert series this year was the Palestrina Choir Sunday afternoon.

“It’s a divine experience listening to them,” Kathleen Skevington said. “It’s important to the early history of the Catholic Church. [Giovanni] Palestrina wrote music for the Sistine Chapel,” she said.

“If people really knew what was happening here, they’d just love to be able to come,” she said.

“This is the largest pipe organ in Northern Virginia,” Paul Skevington said. “Our committee wanted something musically exciting to the eyes and ears, and we’re very fortunate to have [it],” he said.

Jim McCulla was the chairman of the committee that brought the pipe organ to St. Luke after more than 20 long years of work.

“I’m very devoted to the music program there,” McCulla said. “We wanted it to serve a dual purpose. It has proven to be an attraction for groups that wanted to record with an organ” and for liturgical use, he said.

“Every church should have an organ in it,” he said. “It seemed the logical thing to do. … We sold the used organ we had brought in as an interim instrument, and the leadership in the church was motivated to get it.”

“It was an interesting process installing the organ. The designer was there all the time to get the sound right, and there were three very young people scrambling over the equipment to put it together,” he said. “When it was all put together, a man came from Germany, called a voicer, to tune the organ. That’s got to be one of the world’s greatest jobs.”

The old organ “is still out there somewhere,” McCulla said with a laugh.

“I’M SO PLEASED that so many young children in the community get exposed to this type of music, and not only the students of St. Luke’s school,” he said. “It’s great when children are exposed to traditional music and classical music as opposed to what’s on MTV.”

Tim Rowe, founder and musical director of the Amadeus Orchestra, has performed and recorded at St. Luke several times.

“For a chamber orchestra, St. Luke’s is better than a regular recording studio,” Rowe said. “ Most recording studios have dry acoustics, so the instruments can hear themselves but not each other,” he said. “A group of our size, between 30 and 40 musicians, we thrive in wet acoustics, which is more lively, and a bit of an echo helps for a bigger and warmer sound.”

The sound at St. Luke is “very well balanced, which is not the case in many churches,” he said. “I’ve never seen a bad seat, acoustically, there. … It doesn’t seem to have any bad places” in the sanctuary for musical quality, he said.

As artistic director of the New Dominion Chorale and the National Men’s Chorus, Tom Beveridge said his group outgrew performing at St. Luke, size-wise, but the National Men’s Chorus puts on at least one concert each year there.

“We performed there to a packed house Memorial Day weekend,” he said, a concert that included a special military-themed program in honor of the veterans in the D.C. area for the dedication of the WW II Memorial that weekend.

“The building and audience itself made a huge difference in how that concert went over,” he said. “There’s a great atmosphere there. The acoustics are excellent, and their organ is one of the finest instruments.”

In addition to the Palestrina Choir, the Music in McLean concert series will offer seven more concerts from Nov. 14 through May 15 and will feature groups like the Washington Symphonic Brass, the National Men’s Chorus and two concerts by Chantry.

The Washington Symphonic Brass is next on the schedule, performing “Lincoln Portrait,” at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14.

More information is available on the church’s Web site, www.saintlukemclean.org, where a full concert schedule, including a sacred music series on Wednesday afternoons, is posted.