One More Thing

One More Thing

Clifford Brown
Cliff Brown puts his heart and soul into Music at the Meeting House

Everyone has heard of going the extra mile, but 200 hundred extra miles?

How about doing it almost every weekend?

That’s Clifford “Cliff” Brown’s regular routine. He coordinates the Music at the Meeting House program at Chepachet Baptist Church, a performance series that has gained a strong reputation for excellence. The concerts have generated a loyal and ardent following since Kathryn Steere founded the event 29 years ago.

Brown holds bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. He is the Robert Porter Patterson Professor of Government at Union College in Schenectady, New York, where he has been on the faculty for 40 years.

He and his wife, Marilyn, assisted Kathryn with the music presentations at the church in Chepachet. When Kathryn died in 2010 it became their mission to continue the program.

Cliff, 77, has been a member of the church for many years. Despite his professional career at Union College his legal residence is in Rhode Island, and driving three or more hours to commute back here is a long-established habit. Staying rooted while getting around is apparently in his DNA.

His Ocean State attachments include strong ties to Chepachet, where his maternal grandfather had a farm. The family’s connection to Glocester traces back to the late 1700s. Cliff grew up in Providence, but as a youth he often came to stay at the farm and helped with the work. His affection for the town was formed early, and it has endured. So has his commitment to the church.

The music series, which entered its 30th year last month, has continued to thrive under his leadership as he carries on the task of keeping it vital.

“It’s something we do for the community,” Cliff observes, noting that the program is, in part, an outreach effort for the church as well.

Each year there are six or eight programs, three or four in the fall and a similar number in the spring. They bring a wide variety of musical talents to the meeting house to perform. Over the three decades it has existed there have been an estimated 180 individual concerts, and hundreds of different artists have shared their talents with the listeners. The musicians hail not only from Rhode Island (some from Glocester itself), but from all over New England, New Jersey, and further afield.

The rather small meeting house, which can best be described as an intimate, traditional New England place of worship, can accommodate some 125 people in the first floor pews and 100 in the second story balcony. During the concerts it is almost always filled to capacity. No admission is charged, but a free will offering is taken. Patrons travel from near and far to attend.

“We have a 400 member mailing list, and we also have an email list,” says Brown, pointing out that his wife maintains the lists and handles much of the publicity.

“We aim to reach 500 families with each mailing.”

Through the years the musical lineups have included everything from members of the Rhode Island Philharmonic to harpists, harmonica players, and a hurdy-gurdy. There have been old time fiddlers, opera singers, gospel musicians, Celtic groups, woodwind quartets, and Dixieland bands, as well as organ recitals, classical guitar groups, hymn sings, and a program devoted entirely to different versions of “Amazing Grace.”

Other concerts have focused on the music of specific countries and regions, patriotic programs honoring veterans, and programs highlighting the work of individual composers or artists. These have included Nelson Eddy, as well as Glenn Miller, and Stephen Foster.

A concert in 2018 called Songs from the Decades featured the tunes of popular singers and composers such as Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and Leonard Cohen.

Imagination is an important ingredient in the planning of each program. Thinking outside the box can be crucial, Brown suggests.

“We had an outdoor hand bell concert set to celebrate the repair of our shed outside the building. We decided to feature the church’s 1822 Holbrook steeple bell to be rung in coordination with the hand bells,” Brown explains.

He recalls that the effect was impressive, but the large bell threatened to drown out the individual hand bells, and the interplay had to be as carefully modulated as possible. The musicians made it work.

He has plenty of anecdotes like this about the hundreds of musicians who have graced the platform in front of the church’s 1902 tracker pipe organ, which is proudly included in the shows whenever suitable.

“It’s a lot of fun to put on the programs, but it’s a lot of work too,” he says. “If you see people enjoying it, that’s [a source of] a lot of the satisfaction that we feel.”

A tradition associated with the series is the annual yuletide concert. Called An Old English Christmas this year, it will take place Sunday, Dec. 1, at 2:30 p.m. Selections will include classical English favorites such as “Deck the Halls” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Church organist Marilyn Knight of Smithfield will play the tracker organ. Four soloists will sing, accompanied by Marie Kane on piano. There will also be instrumental performances on the trumpet and the sackbut (a medieval trombone), and the English Baritone horn. The audience will be invited to sing along with some of the familiar English Christmas hymns.

Like most thoughtful leaders, Brown gives credit to all the people who help make the concerts successful and shrinks from taking any himself.

“If something needs doing, you just get up and do it. It’s that old New England tradition. You don’t worry about being recognized.”

The list of those who make the event happen is too long to repeat in full. Among the names Cliff mentions, though, are Lois and Paul Boire, Don Field, Alice Knight, and Deborah Nadeau. He also cites Al Palmisciano, who directs the parking of cars, and Nanci Stankus, who coordinates the abundant refreshments that are a tradition at the close of each concert.

Stankus, 85, says she has been one of the team for “a lot of years.” She minces no words in directing the spotlight toward Cliff Brown.

“He puts his heart and soul into this program. This is his baby,” she says.

Contact me at smithpublarry@gmail.com.

Bottom Lines

Talking turkey: A wild turkey can run 25 mph. Many people think they can’t fly, but they can, reaching speeds of 55 mph. They just prefer to stay close to the ground where they gather most of their food. They are omnivorous. Their diet consists of fruits, plants, berries, nuts, small snakes, snails, slugs, worms, spiders, grasshoppers, etc. Contrary to popular belief their meat isn’t tough and gamey, according to a number of online sources. Their population reached an all-time low in the 1930s, but now exceeds six million birds in 49 states. Rhode Island has some four to five thousand, the DEM estimates. Happy Thanksgiving to all.