A sanctuary for artists

A Bellows Falls church’s community outreach includes making its facilities available for concerts, retreats

BELLOWS FALLS — The Immanuel Retreat Center has opened its doors and is in full swing with three- and four-day workshops scheduled through August, and another one in November.

With a focus on community, spirituality, and the arts, the center is a spoke from the hub that is the Immanuel Episcopal Church or, as it is locally known, the Stone Church.

The Retreat Center complements Stone Church Arts (SCA), a concert series celebrating its 10th season this fall. It expands what can be offered in terms of spiritual and arts retreats.

To parish administrator Robert “Beau” Bowler and the parishioners of the church, this cross-pollination of arts and spirituality is a natural fit for the church.

Bowler said the concert series was born out of place, from people and a desire by the church members to reach out to the public.

“Our foci, if you will, are on the arts and spirituality,” Bowler said. “Stone Church Arts was founded by Eugene Friesen and Peggy Crane [in 2004], and Robert McBride was involved at that time, too.”

SCA operated under the auspices of Rockingham Arts and Museum Project (RAMP) for the first few years of its history and now operates as a federally recognized nonprofit charity in its own right.

Bowler explained the church took on the concert series “because we have a beautiful sanctuary with wonderful warm acoustics, and it needs to serve the public. It's here for people to use.

“Our small congregation worships there every Sunday, and we feel that it is for the benefit of the wider community.” The series provides a way for the church to reach out to that community, Bowler said.

The church building, completed in 1867, is the work of architect Richard M. Upjohn, one of whose previous projects was to design the Madison Square Presbyterian Church in New York. It stands on a bluff above the Village Square overlooking the falls that rumble through a gorge at the base of Fall Mountain on the Connecticut River.

The Stone Church is but one of many architectural wonders in this old river mill town that has seen a resurgence of life over the past several decades, as it strives for a new identity.

The Episcopal church plays a significant role in that effort with the SCA series.

RAMP is no longer involved directly, but McBride continues as an enthusiastic supporter. Friesen acts as the artistic director of SCA, working closely with Bowler and the SCA board, and church warden, Gloria Mansfield, putting together the concert series that runs from fall to spring, to “give people something to do,” over the cooler months.

Friesen, a member of the Paul Winter Consort since 1978 and a three-time Grammy award winner known for breaking the cello out of its traditionally classical usage, works as an associate professor at the Berklee School of Music in Boston but calls Vermont home.

And with the opening of the Immanuel Retreat Center in the former parish rectory alongside the Stone Church, he has found a setting for his Vermont Improv workshops.

A beautiful sanctuary

Friesen recalled how he came across the Stone Church in 2000.

“I was just exploring Bellows Falls by myself one day, walking around, and I walked up to the church. The door was unlocked - which is true of all my favorite churches,” he said, laughing.

“I walked in, and I saw this beautiful sanctuary. And then I noticed this huge piano at the front of church. And I assumed it was this terrible piano in terrible shape, but to my amazement, it's this concert grand piano, a Steinway, in very reasonable shape.”

Friesen said he made inquiries and met the serving canon pastor, Peggy Crane, “who was a musician herself,” as well as pastor and caretaker.

Crane, he said, “was familiar with the programs that I participate in in New York City at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church, where I have been artist in residence with Paul Winter Consort since 1981. So she was familiar with some of the programs there and we felt there was some common ground.”

Acknowledging architect Upjohn's role in designing a church with such beautiful acoustics, Friesen explained he developed a relationship with the church and went on to record In the Shade of Angels, an album of mostly solo pieces there, in 2003.

“I wanted to capture something of the magic of a live performance. The Stone Church has a warm sound, but more important, an atmosphere that I find continually inspiring. I wanted to play like I play in concert - aiming my sound at the back row of the hall - and I like how the church acoustics respond to my cello.”

Meeting Friesen while he was wandering around the Square that fateful day, McBride expressed his idea that the Stone Church would make a great venue for a musical series. At the time, he also showed Friesen the Rockingham Meeting House as another possibility.

But Friesen found a connection with the Stone Church, and with the help of Crane, and then “Beau” Bowler, the subsequent parish administrator, the Stone Church Arts series was born in 2004.

Vermont Improv at Immanuel Retreat Center

Meanwhile, Friesen has been delivering workshops for 30 years and was on the lookout for the perfect place to hold them, having used various venues over the years. Finding places for workshop attendees to stay was always a problem, and these venues were never wholly satisfactory.

When the center opened this spring with 12 beds, a large kitchen, and air-conditioned living and dining areas, Friesen's prayers were answered, and he held his first Vermont Improvisation Intensive in July.

The Immanuel Retreat Center emphasizes the connection between spirituality and art with workshops in spirituality and the arts, personal retreats, and spiritual direction.

Friesen said the program has finally found a perfect home. In mid-July, for four days, 16 international and classically trained musicians converged on Bellows Falls to reconnect with their music, with most of the participants staying for the duration at the Retreat Center.

Friesen told attendees that “acknowledging the importance of context and environment in discovering the inner voice of every musician, the Vermont Improv Intensive offers access to the inspiring sound and ambiance of the Stone Church, a sonic and aesthetic setting that coaxes new sounds and ideas from even experienced performers.”

With people coming from as far as Japan, Alabama, Washington state, Wisconsin, and California, the center can tout that it has Amtrak service, and is about 2-3 hours away from airports in Manchester, N.H., Boston, Albany, N.Y., and Windsor Locks, Conn.

A Dartmouth graduate and cellist, Julia Floberg, currently working in arts administration at the Hopkins Center in Hanover, N.H., was not unlike several of the other classically trained musicians who attended the July intensive.

Having decided to go on to getting a master's in concert performance upon graduating in 2011, Floberg took some time off and basically stopped playing the cello.

Classical musicians practice endlessly within a strict - and, to some musicians, restricting - regimen; for some, it is difficult to transition from pure discipline. With his emphasis on offering attendees improvisation techniques, Friesen offers attendees a path to return to pure enjoyment of their art.

“I realized that I didn't enjoy playing anymore. It was more and more like a chore,” Floberg recalled. “I wasn't sure why I was doing it anymore.”

She heard about the program for classically trained musicians of any instrument and decided to take a chance. What could she lose?

Several other participants expressed being at a similar place.

Floberg said she had started “to lose sight of the joy of creativity and spiritual experience that some people have.” And after the intensive, “from Eugene, right from the start, (you learn how) you can enter this world where you can express yourself musically, to open up to release anxieties and fears.”

Now, she said, “I just feel confident.”

The intensive also attracted world-class musicians, including cellist Avi Friedlander, the founder and director of Suzuki Talent Education Program of Birmingham, who teaches at both Emory University in Atlanta and the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham.

Friedlander - who performs and has recorded music from classical to rock and writes his own arrangements for solo cello of rock tunes of artists ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Pearl Jam - called his experience of the intensive “a life-changing experience of opening the creative soul.” Special guest and “Jazzical founder” Joel A. Martin, whose classical-jazz piano has been heard all over the world, was also part of the intensive, and that Friday night, Friesen and Martin performed a concert together in the church sanctuary.

The Immanuel Retreat Center is hosting a second Vermont Improv workshop this weekend, from Thursday, Aug. 1 through Sunday, Aug. 4.

“The Creative Cello Workshop is dedicated to the cello, and its new home in contemporary settings like jazz, rock, Brazilian, singer/songwriter, pop, whatever,” said Friesen, adding that participants would be focusing on “how to contribute and collaborate in non-classical situations where we need to create our own cello parts and solos.”

From Aug. 15 through 18, Friesen brings “Grammy-award-winning master drummer Glen Velez and vocal phenomenon Loire for a rare opportunity to explore the world of pulse in an intimate and intense summer session.”

And from Nov. 1 through 3, he is offering an “immersion in the music traditions of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, exploring the expressive worlds of Gaelic Bards and Lowland poets, with Music and Poetry of the Celtic Lands.

After his first workshop at the Retreat Center and with concerts and performances in the church sanctuary, Friesen said, “We had an overpoweringly positive experience. The retreat center seems to be very, very comfortable.”

“And the great vibe, thanks to Beau, is just right at the church,” he concluded. “I don't see any reason to go elsewhere.”

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