When I walked into the city gym on Monday night to listen to the community choir rehearsing for the Christmas concert “In This Very Room,” emotion overcame me as the music filled the room right up to the ceiling. The melody surrounded me with the glorious sounds of Christmas. I saw familiar faces among unfamiliar ones, heard familiar music amidst unfamiliar strains, but everyone there was concentrating on the music and producing an amazing sound in that historical old building. Often throughout the years, I’ve heard people talk about the high quality of the acoustics there. I know very little about music, but I know what sounds good to me and that rehearsal sounded like angels singing. I sat and let the music wash over me. Something mesmerizing and magical filled the air.
The idea for this concert occurred over 15 years ago when Jeff Lewis moved back to Baxley for a couple of years. At that time the Old City Gym had fallen into serious disrepair, but Jeff saw the building as an incredible venue for music. He ultimately played an organ concert there which people still talk about today. Later the gym was renovated to its present condition. Jeff moved away again, but the dream of a Christmas concert remained with him.
Six years ago, Jeff once again returned to Baxley to live and again felt the call of the Old Gym. He knew already that an enormous amount of talent exists in this community, so in September, 2013, he formed a Community Choir. The next Monday night, six people showed up to rehearse. Since then the choir has grown steadily. Then the Arts Council supported the idea and agreed to help fund the venture. Word of mouth added more and more singers and musicians. Over time it has grown into the magnificent sound that I listened to on Monday night.
Jeff Lewis says that the whole production started with a vision and faith the size of a mustard seed.
His acquisition of the organ clinched the vision, though. In 1995, David Litten and his wife Ann presented an organ to the Skidaway Island United Methodist Church in Savannah. Jeff played the dedication service and later served as full-time organist and Minister of Music there. He developed quite a relationship with that organ. Then in 2012, David called and said the church was replacing it.
“Would you like to have the Allen?” David asked Jeff.
“I admit without embarrassment that I pulled the car over and wept uncontrollably. I had been praying about an organ that very minute --- and playing again in the old City Gym!!!” Jeff said.
The Allen Organ Company, of Macungie, Pennsylvania, the largest builder of church organs in the world, built this organ. It is a digital organ and reproduces “sampled” sounds from great pipe organs stored in its computers rather than using actual pipes to produce its sounds. If it were a pipe organ, there would be some 5000 pipes, ranging from 32 feet tall to the size of a lead pencil and would require many rooms to house it. This particular organ has around 80 traditional organ voices as well as an additional 100 voices in its MIDI system. The organ has a massive speaker system with 28 full-range speaker cabinets weighing from 60 to 80 pounds each and hundreds of feet of connecting cables. The cost of a digital organ is only a fraction of that of a traditional pipe organ --- and has only a fraction of the maintenance and tuning headaches that usually accompany pipes! Once it is up and running, an expert technician from Allen Organs will then tune and “voice” it to the acoustics of the Gym. In those acoustics, the result is virtually that of a great Cathedral.
On Saturday night, December 21, 2013, at 7:30 pm, the concert will take place in the gym. It will feature Jeff Lewis and Friends, the community choir, brass, hand bells, the Boys and Girls’ Club, and, of course, the Allen Organ. They tell me that Baroque music is early rock and roll so I expect the rafters to rock! The admission is a mere $10. I can hardly wait and I hope to see you there.