The mellow reverberations of steel pans called to mind a wide swath of beach, a sapphire lagoon, maybe a palm tree swaying in the tropical breeze. But no, the sweet sounds spread from a concert stage in land-locked New Philadelphia, Ohio and delighted the packed house of the Performing Arts Center on the campus of Kent State University at Tuscarawas.
This was “Grace in the Valley,” a unique undertaking meant to encourage ties among Moravians as well as to demonstrate an appealing Moravian presence to the community at large. The June 29-30 weekend celebration of music and cross-cultural fellowship came about largely through the creative thinking and logistical orchestrations of The Rev. John Wallace, pastor of the First Moravian Church in Dover, Ohio, and the whole-hearted involvement of the Grace Steel Ensemble of Grace Moravian Church in Queens, New York, under the direction of Geoff Ford. The event drew volunteer staffing and financial support especially from the Dover congregation and the Ohio Moravian Ministries Commission.
After traveling by van on Friday, the young adult musicians and companions from New York were greeted and welcomed to the Tuscarawas Valley by other young adults, and were soon whisked off to Saturday picnics, rehearsals and sound checks ahead of two scheduled headline appearances. Joining the Grace band were two local steel pan bands from Dover and New Philadelphia high schools.
Spending time and making music together, the young musicians shared appreciation for one another’s styles and techniques. The Ohio musicians heard it as a compliment when some of the New York musicians, many of whom share Caribbean heritage, told them their playing was reminiscent of authentic Trinidadian bands, while the New York musicians were pleased that the school-based Ohio musicians enjoyed their interpretations of hymns and church music.
Saturday evening was devoted to taking in the regional theatre production of Trumpet in the Land, a poignant musical drama about Moravian missionary efforts to minister with and to Native Americans at the time of the American Revolution. (Unfortunately, the outdoor show was cancelled due to stormy weather, though the cast was kind enough to offer an abbreviated version to the out-of-town guests under the shelter of the concessions pavilion.)
On Sunday morning, the Grace Steel Ensemble accompanied a spirited worship service in which all area Moravian congregations and clergy took part. Sisters and Brothers from as far away as Indiana and Michigan helped swell the attendance in the state-of-the-art concert hall.
The Rev. Cynthia Geyer, Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the Moravian Church, Eastern District, delivered an energetic and challenging sermon on “Oneness.” Singers from area Moravian Church choirs joined voices to offer an anthem, along with pianist Jeanne Carrothers, and 21 youngsters sang and danced to the tunes they had recently learned at Vacation Bible School. And, of course, there were hymns: a new hymn set to the beloved “Morning Star” tune, and perennial favorites “What Brought Us Together” and “Jesus Makes My Heart Rejoice.” One worshiper, Michele Green, said, “This was amazing! To have 700 Moravians together singing in one place gave me the chills.” Others praised the warmth generated by the cooperative effort. Many expressed that God had, indeed, been glorified.
Then, on Sunday afternoon, the Grace Steel Ensemble took the stage again, this time in concert with two other high school steel pan bands as well as several local vocal groups. Each of the bands played complete sets on their own, with the vocal groups performing in between the band sets.
The hall filled with an interesting mix of traditional tunes, jazz standards, pop arrangements and beloved hymns. Formally attired hosts Ben Wallace and Abby Helbling emceed the show with a light touch, eliciting lots of laughs from the audience and warming them up well for an enthusiastic sing-along of patriotic songs. The grand finale featured all three steel pan bands united as one Superband to play “Ras Mas.” Stretching completely across the expansive stage, the melodic tremolos coming from nearly 75 mallet-wielding percussionists earned a standing ovation from the 1,100 audience members who had been fortunate enough to claim tickets to the sold-out spectacle. Dover High School musician and member of First Moravian Church Matt Spies said, “We about blew the audience out of their chairs! We didn’t want the performance to end.”
Afterwards, as musicians, patrons and spectators mingled in the lobby, good will emanated from the crowd. Moravians from differing cultural backgrounds had successfully and beautifully shared the wonder of Christ’s love through one of the Church’s greatest gifts: music.
The Rev. Christine Sobania Johnson serves as pastor of the Fry’s Valley Moravian Church in rural Tuscarawas County, Ohio, and as chairperson of the Ohio Moravian Ministries Commission (OMMC).