Bruton Parish Episcopal Church has been a source of music in Williamsburg since the 1930s. Over time, the music program has grown from a few concerts a year, to at least one performance each week.
“The Candlelight Concert Series is the one I think that has the longest tenure,” said JanEl Will, an organist and former music director at Bruton Parish.
Rebecca Davy, director of music and organist for the church, said the church’s modern musical offerings began in the 1930s when some well-known musicians were hired to perform a few seasonal concerts.
Davy said the Candlelight Concerts really took off in the 1950s when the church decided to host year-round concerts played mostly by local performers.
“The concert series as it exists now began in the 1950s with just as many concerts, which surprises people,” Davy said.
In a normal year, the Parish hosts more than 130 concerts. The audiences are a mixture of visitors to Colonial Williamsburg and community members, according to Davy She said about 125 people attend any given concert, on average. In December, the crowds are overflowing.
“(The concerts are) really meant as an outreach to the community, as well as to the visitors in the area, to be able to hear a concert,” Davy said.
But there’s more going on than just the Candlelight Concerts. Recently, Will said they started the Parish House Music Series to show off the church’s new Steinway Piano.
“Which now avails ourselves ... the ability to do piano, which we did not have at the church,” Will said. “I think just having the new Parish House Series opens up more possibilities or opportunities for performers to come.”
Bruton Parish also purchased a new organ this year. The last time the church made any significant changes to the organ was in 1955, according to Davy.
“The organ is central to worship, so it’s important to have an instrument to better lead singing both by the congregation and the choir, and also as an outreach for the big music ministry,” Davy said.
Davy said the church decided to get a new organ about 12 years ago when a company that came to look at fixing up the old one told Bruton it would be better to start over with a new organ.
“Eventually, a capital campaign fund was begun and money was raised for the organ and it was ordered,” Davy said. “Then Dobson Organ Company put us on the list and then when they were done with other instruments that they were building they started ours and installed it.”
While it’s fully installed, the organ is still being tonally adjusted, so the inaugural concerts will be held in September.
“I’m sure we will have a huge community presence at our upcoming inaugural events,” Davy said.
“There will be four weekends in September (devoted to) the new organ, and the new instrument will help reinvigorate the program even more.”
Parade of performers
When the concerts first began, Davy said the choirmaster played most of the concerts himself, but the number of visiting performers at the church has grown over the years, with many groups returning on a regular basis.
“I receive many notes from performers about what a wonderful experience they enjoyed,” Davy said.
There is also no venue fee, making it an ideal space for school groups and individual performers.
“There’s so much variety and we’re able to host so many people who otherwise would not have a venue to perform,” Will said. “And I think that’s the thing that’s so beloved by people who perform, is that it’s a place for them to come and share their talents.”
Bruton serves as a music venue for local musicians, such as oboist Melinda McKenzie, who has performed at the church for more than 10 years.
“I’ve done a number of Candlelight Concerts and worked with a wonderful musician like Becky Davy as an accompanist,” McKenzie said.
“Bruton does the publicity so people know you’re there, and Bruton is in the middle of the colonial capital, so you’ve got a built-in audience, too. Playing in other venues doesn’t have the same cache, as say, Colonial Williamsburg and Bruton Parish does.”
Recently, McKenzie set up a concert for her student, David Lee, a rising freshman heading to Virginia Tech who plays the oboe and french horn. Lee said it was a great opportunity for him to play in a historically significant public space.
“That’s a huge honor to have because not that many people have that kind of opportunity to play in such an area,” Lee said.
“I’ve only played in school or school-related things, so it was a new experience for me and it helped me grow as a musician, and more importantly, as an individual.”
With a thriving music program, Bruton Parish is another space in a community that appreciates the arts where they flourish.
“I would say Bruton is a large part of a very thriving musical outlet for Williamsburg,” Will said.
Moore said that while the church has historic value, it’s key to recognize that it’s still a community resource.
“So, it’s historic, but Bruton Parish is very much active in the 21st century, I think,” Moore said.
While a great performance venue for locals, Davy said the church also attracts performers from all over the country.
“In my tenure, there have been people all over Europe including Poland, Italy, obviously England, the most common, Germany sometimes and of course across the U.S.” Davy said.
One such group was the Boys Choir of Trinity Church on the Green from New Haven, Connecticut, directed by Walden Moore.
Mooresaid he’s been coming to the church for more than 50 years.
“I’m from Virginia originally,” Moore said. “This church was a big influence on me as a child, in sort of looking at what a church music program could be as far as a service to the community.”
Despite the talent the church attracts, Will said they sometimes have trouble getting locals in the audience because they are inundated by the sheer number of concerts. However, she said local folks may not realize different musicians perform concert to concert.
“We host so many people from all scopes, you might have a trombone quartet, a choir and a handbell choir within one week,” Will said.
Even though the concerts are in a sacred historic space, Davy said they are not meant to sell religion.
“They’re not sacred concerts, obviously sacred music is performed, but so is secular,” Davy said. “It’s more that they’re classical in nature and not that they have to be sacred by any means, but it’s still a concert in a sacred space.”
Want to visit?
Bruton Parish Church, 331 W. Duke of Gloucester St. See the full schedule of concerts and performances at brutonparish.org/calendar.
Inaugural organ concerts
Gordon Stewart, organist, 8 p.m. Sept. 7, 5:30 p.m. Sept. 8, Bruton Parish Church. Free; pass required. Reserve your pass at 345-2252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Choral Evensong, 5:30 p.m. Sept. 15, Bruton Parish Church. Free; no pass required.
Organ & Instruments, 8 p.m. Sept. 21, Bruton Parish Church. Free; no pass required.
New Music for a New Organ, 8 p.m. Sept. 28, Bruton Parish Church. Free; no pass required.
Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.