NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

PortWatch

December 8, 2011

Rooted in community

In the early 2000s, the Rev. Ross Varney, pastor of Belleville Congregational Church received a telephone call.

The von Trapp great-grandchildren were going to be performing at the Firehouse Center for the Performing Arts and wanted to get in some extra practice before their concert.

The church's neighbor, and the von Trapps' host, Ken Irwin inquired if it would be possible for the children to use the stage in the Newburyport church's historic 1867 Meeting House.

During the visit and subsequent conversations, Varney learned of Irwin and his wife's deep love of music — as well as his experience in the field. Irwin is a co-founder of Rounder Records.

Meanwhile, he continued to hear praise for the church's Meeting House. The space has traditionally been used by the Newburyport Choral Society for its performances.

"They always said we have the best acoustics of any venue in the region," Varney said.

He began to mull the idea of using the hall more for concerts and other performances. He reached out to Irwin for help with the plan. The church began hosting more performances.

Slowly, plans began to gain steam.

"It's a beautiful space for music," Varney said.

The Meeting House and adjacent Fiske Chapel complex have also been used for church dances, including a successful Mardi Gras celebration in March that officially kicked off the new Roots Music Concert Series at the church.

"People never left the dance floor for the full hour and a half," Varney said.

The program began last winter after Varney, Irwin and other church and community members formed an organizing committee. The all-volunteer group meets weekly and spends hours in their free time planning for the series. This year, the concert series included six concerts.

The group has two goals, Varney said. The first is to utilize the church's venues and its acoustics, while bringing "a variety of good-quality music" to Newburyport, he said.

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