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This article was prepared for the July 7, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Ocean Grove’s Deep Rumblings
For some a summer at the Jersey Shore means beach, bars, bikinis and the Boss, or variations of the above. Summertime hot spots like Belmar, Long Beach Island, Seaside, or Wildwood beckon, with college students and young professionals cramming into summer rentals and lines of cars dragging on through the hot afternoons. There are the volleyball tournaments in makeshift beach stadiums, the basso rumblings from the clubs, and the psychotic remonstrations from the animal houses down the street.
And then there is another shore sound: but a more spiritual, sober and, for at least one night a summer, a more powerful sound than all of the animal houses on New Jersey’s beloved coast put together. That sound will be emanating from the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove when the town hosts its 50th annual Choir Festival on Sunday, July 11.
“It’s so incredible that it’s unbelievable at first,” says Lewis Daniels, Ocean Grove’s choir director, who has been directing the event since 1966. “Imagine having hundreds of tenors and 300 or 400 basses. It’s a sound that you just can’t believe and of course, the mammoth pipe organ and the accompaniments. They tell me that you can hear it for at least half a mile.”
Tucked away in the far eastern corner of Neptune Township south of Asbury Park, the small tented hamlet of Ocean Grove is an anachronistic community of dry laws, Victorian charm, and religious fervor that has provided a faith-based beach alternative to New Jersey’s popular coastline since the Reconstruction.
Almost a century ago Ocean Grove had earned its nickname of “God’s Square Mile,” and its choir festival is a very big deal. “It is the biggest event we have,” says Daniels. “It’s packed tight, it’s jammed. It’s a big thing for the town. Parking is disastrous.”
But don’t be too daunted by the parking scene. Don’t let it keep you from missing this incredible event. Many of the visitors come on chartered buses and there are plenty of spots in neighboring towns like Asbury and Bradley Beach, a short walk from the auditorium.
This year’s program features 1,600 singers from 200 different churches singing together with a dozen conductors accompanied by several orchestral pieces and, of course, the auditorium’s colossal pipe organ.
The town anticipates a full house, and then some. “There are 6,500 seats, but we accommodate another thousand or so outdoors,” says Daniels. “All the doors slide open so other people can sit outside and hear the concert.” He adds that the choir size could more than quadruple — counting the audience — for the last number on the bill.
“The music has been selected from the highlights of the past 49 festivals and the climax will be a celebratory performance of the Halleluiah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, sung by the huge choir and the audience, numbering about 8,000 voices,” says Daniels.
The program features traditional church anthems like “I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me,” the 23rd Psalm, Franz Schubert’s “The Omnipotence,” as well as prayers, a doxology, and other constituent parts of a church service.
One anthem, “God Is My Rock,” was composed especially for this year’s festival by celebrated conductor and composer Paul Leddington Wright. Wright, one of 12 conductors on hand, is the musical director of Coventry Cathedral in England and is a longtime conductor for BBC radio and television programs.
Also participating will be Philadelphia’s Festive Brass ensemble, the Calvin Handbell Ringers from Red Bank’s First Presbyterian Church, and the Ocean Grove Auditorium Quartet, which is composed of major opera singers, including Ronald Naldi of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The main accompaniment will be provided by Gordon Turk on the massive Hope-Jones pipe organ (more on that later) and Faith Daniels, the director’s wife, who will be playing the Steinway piano.
The logistics for pulling off a performance of this magnitude are exacting, but well-trodden after decades of practice. A year before the performance the process of choosing the music begins. Then a letter is mailed listing the anthems, and participating choirs and individuals purchase and learn the scores and practice on their own. There is only one rehearsal with the whole choir on the day of the performance.
The Great Auditorium is worth a visit for its size and acoustics alone. Built in 1894, the edifice is a natural amplifier of sounds and its design is pretty much unaltered since its construction. The ceiling, which reaches 55 feet at its apex, is curved to optimize acoustics. Most of the building is made out of longleaf yellow pine — sweet smelling, reflective, and firm enough to support the delicate curvature of the design. Consequently, even the simplest sound becomes a symphony of sorts.
Samuel LaRosa, the auditorium manager, reports that the acoustics recently wowed another Jersey Shore musical giant who made his name in neighboring Asbury Park — Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen, who had been in attendance to hear a recent Garrison Keillor performance, left the show raving about the sound of the building and even discussed the possibility of doing an acoustic concert there sometime. “He said the sound needs very little amplification because of the acoustics — that was what impressed him,” LaRosa reports.
Every year the auditorium hosts some big name acts — earlier this season it was the Oak Ridge Boys and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Upcoming shows this summer include the Smothers Brothers, Bob Newhart, Christian rock giants Third Day, and classical ensembles. A show by Springsteen would be the blockbuster of the season for any venue on the Jersey Shore, but this all counts as speculation for now.
All who enter the Great Auditorium know who is the real Boss around here and it ain’t Bruce. Behind the stage is a huge wooden banner dating from the construction of the auditorium 110 years ago that reads in the best King James English, “Holiness to the Lord so be ye holy,” a testament Ocean Grove’s beginnings as part of the Holiness revivalist movement of the post-Civil War era. The mainstay of the auditorium and the town was and is still the Sunday service, which features preachers from different denominations all summer long. There are also daily Bible hours during the week, with visiting theologians lecturing, and many other Christian programs.
Equally as impressive as the hall is the pipe organ. Built in 1907, the 10,300-pipe Hope-Jones organ is one of the largest in the country and is configured to play everything from traditional baroque organ fare to contemporary gospel. Organ recitals by house organist Gordon Turk take place on Saturdays and Wednesday nights throughout the summer.
Daniels, 76, grew up in Penns Park, Pennsylvania but summered in Ocean Grove. He spent 50 years as president of a jewelry polishing equipment firm, Cocker-Weber Brush Co., based in Telford, Pennsylvania, and also spent most of those years directing choirs from Philadelphia to Hazlet. He has three children and four grandchildren.
Like his family, Daniels’ faith has been a lifelong companion. And he, like many others who have ended up part of the Ocean Grove experience, went through a bit of a conversion of sorts because of his association with Ocean Grove. “I was Presbyterian, but am now Methodist,” he says. “They don’t have a Presbyterian church in Ocean Grove.”
The town was founded at the end of 1869, when preacher William B. Osborn happened on a grove of pine, cedar, and hickory trees smack in the middle of the Monmouth County coast and protected by water on three sides. He saw it as an ideal site for Methodist camp meetings, and Methodists and other Christians soon flocked to the town and stayed the summer, living in large canvas tents owned by the town. Ocean Grove still owns and rents out those tents (no two are the same) and keeps a vigorous schedule of religious, spiritual educational, and devotional programs.
Years ago, before the courts stepped in, Ocean Grove might have seemed restrictive for outsiders. Driving or biking on Sundays was forbidden. Chains went up across the gates fronting the town and cyclists pedaling along the boardwalk from neighboring towns had to dismount for the dozen or so blocks of town.
Some 130 years on, the Christian seaside resort is still largely run, at least in spirit, by the Camp Meeting Association, although it is now officially governed by neighboring Neptune Township, which took over after a series of church versus state lawsuits in the early-1980s. Gone are the Sunday chains from the town gates, but not lost on the town is its commitment to spiritual matters.
For beachgoers, Ocean Grove remains a quaint and relaxing diversion from the usual. Its coffee and ice cream shops, colorful Victorian homes, bed-and-breakfasts, and outdoor restaurants come without the distractions so omnipresent in nearby towns.
“It’s kind of an oasis,” says Daniels. “We don’t have the racket and the thumping bass of other towns. Next door in Asbury you can have all of that you want. We have a little different lifestyle here. We enjoy good cultural music and we have good Biblical preaching and teaching.” Adding a little noise, and a little 21st century culture, is Christian rock, a booming industry at the moment.
Christian rock or no, the town hasn’t given up its roots. A God-first, quiet, respectful attitude still rules the roost, and people here are undaunted by the secular society that surrounds them. Crediting, at least in part, the absence of demon rum, Daniels says “Here we’ve hung on pretty well. One reason is we don’t have liquor here.”
Ocean Grove Camp Meeting, the Great Auditorium, Ocean and Pilgrim pathways, Ocean Grove, 800-773-0097. Choir Festival Sunday, July 11, 7:30 p.m. 732-775-0035.
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