The Healing Power of Song : Quake-damaged church hopes 'Elijah' concert soothes psyches while raising funds for pipe organ repair.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times

For many at St. John Baptist de la Salle Catholic Church, this Sunday's benefit performance of Men delssohn's "Elijah" is far more than just another musical event at the church.

For parishioners, the sound of 110 voices singing the biblical oratorio will mark another step toward putting last year's earthquake behind them.

"Music has the power to heal," said Geraldine Biggs McGrath, musical director at St. John Baptist. "It expresses what we can't express by words. It helps to get those feelings out."

Helping to illuminate those emotions will be the Los Robles Master Chorale, whose performance of "Elijah" this weekend is designed to raise money to repair the church's 30-year-old pipe organ, which was badly damaged in the Northridge quake.

"The organ took a direct hit," said McGrath, "and the pipes went all over the place."

That same organ, which was in the church choir loft, had accompanied the Los Robles Master Chorale in a spring, 1988, performance. "It was a very nice organ," remembered James Stemen, the chorale's music director. "We performed there last December, and I didn't realize then how much damage they had."

In addition to the organ, the church lost a tower, its convent, the church hall and a smaller hall, McGrath said. "So we have a lot of vacant land right now." So far, the tower has been replaced, and a temporary dome is filling in for the church hall. The church is hoping to raise enough funds by December to rebuild the organ, which was originally installed by Santa Monica-based Abbott & Sieker in 1967.

"They told us this earthquake rewrote all the rules about installing organs," McGrath said. "They said they are going to use different materials this time."

For Sunday's concert in the 1,200-seat room, the chorale will sing to piano accompaniment and feature four soloists: baritone John Ross Nelson, soprano Karen Winner, alto Linda Foster and tenor David Huff.

The ensemble--based at Moorpark College--is celebrating its 17th season and has a membership that stretches from Oxnard to Chatsworth.

Sunday's program "is really to uplift the people here," McGrath said, "because they're still suffering from the earthquake more than a year later. Some are still living out of their homes, in motels."

The church serves about 3,000 families, McGrath said, and is just one of 121 area churches damaged in the quake. She noted that other structures in the neighborhood suffered even worse devastation.

The loss of the large church hall put a stop to regular bingo games, which had been a significant fund-raising tool for the parish. But McGrath said St. John Baptist had never stopped its music program, which serves both fund-raising and emotional needs.

"We keep singing," said McGrath. "That's real good therapy."



What: Los Robles Master Chorale performs "Elijah."

Location: St. John Baptist de la Salle Catholic Church, 16545 Chatsworth St., Granada Hills.

Hours: 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

Price: Donation of $12 general, $10 for students and seniors.

Call: (818) 363-1326.

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