Dear Friends of UVAGO,

Deanne and I have been in Jerusalem now since June of last year, and as you can imagine, it has been the most incredible experience for us.  Anyone who has had this opportunity says the same thing.  Every square inch of this area is rich with history, and it is so inspiring living here and walking where Jesus walked.  It’s almost impossible to describe it, but I wanted to share some of our experience with you.

Our main assignments are with the music program at the BYU Jerusalem Center and hosting tours of the many visitors who come from all over the world.  We love working with all the BYU students here.  Among them are always a lot of talented singers and instrumentalists. Deanne directs our great student choir that sings for the Christmas and Easter programs, sacrament meetings and district conferences, and we have some terrific talent shows.  Every Sunday evening there is a public concert by first-rate Israeli chamber musicians.  We host those concerts as well and get to sit in on some phenomenal music.  Occasionally I even get asked to turn pages for the pianists.  I am more than happy to do that and have learned a lot about the chamber literature in the process.

I have played two of these Sunday evening recitals myself already.  The first was a program of organ music from around the world (including pieces from Scandinavia, Russia, Asia, and Latin America), and the second was an all-Bach recital, for which we had a sell-out crowd of 300.  I’ve always said that there’s nothing that brings people, even those who don’t know much about organ, out to an organ recital like the music of Bach, and this was no exception.  My next recital will be music by French and German Romantic composers, and then in the summer I’ll do a “musical fireworks” program of American music.

Leading the tours and meeting with the visitors is always enjoyable.  We have a lot of members of the Church who come here on tours, but we also have a steady stream of Israelis, Russians, and Europeans who come to see the Center. We have fun conversations and feel like we become friends, even though we are only with them for a short visit.

Our visitors are interested in the video we show about the Center and BYU, and of course they love the view from the terrace over the Old City of Jerusalem and the gardens.  But the thing that really gets them is the organ in the upper auditorium.  Very few Israelis or Palestinians have ever heard organ music, let alone seen a live performance on an organ.  In the US, many synagogues have organs, but not in Israel.  The few organs in Israel are in Christian churches, and not many of the local citizens have had occasion to go into churches, so they are always amazed and fascinated when they hear and see the organ.  The organ at the Center is a three-manual tracker organ built by the Danish firm of Marcussen.  It is very similar to the organ at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square—it even has horizontal trumpets.  Each visiting group enjoys a 15-minute “recital,” but since the visitors are so new to the organ, I usually make it more of an organ demo. I almost always play the Bach Toccata in d minor (the runaway favorite), but then I’ll play bits of other pieces to demonstrate the different stops of the organ, using pieces such as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (principal chorus), William Tell and Verdi’s Aida (trumpets), Dvorak’s Largo (oboe, we don’t have an English horn), Peter and the Wolf (bassoon), Rhapsody in Blue (Schalmei for the clarinet), a Sousa march (piccolo), etc.  It makes such a difference when they hear tunes that are familiar to them.  We just had a Zimbelstern installed in the organ, and so I have fun playing Jingle Bells.  For Israelis I like to play Guilmant’s arrangement of the theme from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, which is now a universally recognized Chanukah song here. They love that one!  For visiting Christian groups I play well-known hymns and songs: Amazing Grace, God of Our Fathers (to show off the horizontal trumpets), How Great Thou Art, Ave Maria, Praise to the Man (for bagpipe sounds), Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, and arrangements of “The Holy City” and “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked.”  It is a very emotional experience for most visitors to hear these songs as they look out of the picture windows and see the Mount of Olives and the city of Jerusalem.

We have church meetings on Saturdays (Shabbat) here at the Center.  Often we will have as many as 200 visitors for church.  When you add 100 BYU students and other Jerusalem Branch members to the congregation, it makes for some rousing hymn singing!  Deanne and I have various callings in the Jerusalem Branch and District that keep us busy.

On Sundays I play the 36-bell carillon on top of the tower of the fabulous 1930 art-deco YMCA building.  This carillon is quite similar to the one on the BYU campus.  It is fun to play hymns and other music, ringing over the city of Jerusalem.  I always let students who can read music give it a try.  The student choir also gave a Christmas concert for a huge crowd at the YMCA’s outdoor Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

Many people ask about proselytizing in Israel.  While it is not against the law to proselytize here, BYU has agreed with the Israeli government, for a variety of reasons, that we will not proselytize.  It’s challenging at times to be on a volunteer assignment like this (it’s not technically a mission) when you can’t talk about your faith, but it’s surprising how many wonderful conversations we have with our visitors without talking directly about religion.

One of my goals here has been to play as many other organs in Jerusalem and around Israel as possible. It has been a great experience to play organs in famous churches here and meet their resident organists and pastors.  Some of my favorites in Jerusalem include the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer (Schuke), the Roman Catholic Monastery of St. Savior (Rieger), the Lutheran Church of the Ascension (Sauer, from 1910, a big Romantic organ that has an electric blower but can also be pumped manually), St. George’s Anglican Cathedral (Rieger), the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Rieger), the Latin Patriarchate (Bazzani), and Notre Dame of Jerusalem (Nelson).  At the Elma concert hall in Zichron Ya’akov in northern Israel I performed a program of music by Vierne, Dupré, Messiaen, and Langlais on their Klais organ; and in Haifa a recital of American works at the Hecht Auditorium on an organ by Israeli builder Gideon Shamir.

A very special opportunity for me is to play at the Church of the Agony (also called the Church of All Nations), which is adjacent to the Garden of Gethsemane.  A Croatian priest there lets me play during the noon hour.  Pilgrims from all over the world come here to meditate on what took place nearby.  I play quiet music on the small Rieger organ, including Bach chorales, Mendelssohn slow movements, and sacramental hymns.  It is a very sacred experience.

A trip to the Holy Land should be on everyone’s bucket list—don’t miss the opportunity if you can possibly make it here.  I hope we will see some of you on an upcoming tour!

Here is a link to a Google Photos album of related pictures:

Jim Welch