On May 15, the sanctity of a house of worship was shattered when a gunman opened fire at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, which was hosting a congregation of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church. The shooter killed one person and wounded five others.

As with many such atrocities, there were stories of heroism that counterbalanced the senseless cruelty of the act. Sports physician John Cheng threw himself in the line of fire, dying in an attempt to prevent others from being shot. Visiting pastor Billy Chang struck the gunman with a chair, and he and others managed to subdue him.

The tragedy could have been far worse. Heroism, and an unbreakable bond of community, saved many people that day. 

Those selfless acts, as much as the tragedy itself, moved Pacific Symphony President John Forsyte and Carl St.Clair, the orchestra’s music director, to organize a concert at the church to honor the people who worship there, the brave souls who faced down evil, and the Orange County Taiwanese community at large. The concert, which featured members of the symphony, the Pacific Chorale and soprano Anna Schubert, took place Wednesday evening in front of an appreciative and at times emotional audience.

The event drew 375 people, more than 50% capacity for Geneva Church. The Rev. Dr. Steven M. Marsh prefaced the PSO’s opening selection, the world premiere performance of “Hymn of Healing,” by recognizing “the ongoing healing of our community” and urging everyone present “to enjoy the gift of human music.”

“There are so many ripples that pass through the fabric of Orange County when something like this happens,” St.Clair said. “We need to do all we can with the strengthening and healing powers of music.”

St.Clair has helped organize several concerts over the years commemorating fallen police officers and marking other tragic events. He says he can sense when a public gathering with music seems appropriate and meaningful. 

“There are just certain moments when you know there’s something you can do to help,” he said. “It’s a special offering of our condolences, our hope and our understanding of what they will be going through for quite some time.”

Weeks before the concert, Forsyte made overtures to Rev. Marsh from Geneva Presbyterian Church. “I said, ‘We’re available to provide something that would bring healing and symbolize a rejection of hate.’” Marsh broached the idea with Rev. Albany Lee of Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church. “They were both very excited about it,” Forsyte said.

Forsyte wasn’t familiar with the Geneva Presbyterian Church, but he guessed that a smaller ensemble would be more effective than the full forces of the symphony orchestra. “I was thinking of chamber music, but I hadn’t spoken yet with Carl. He said, ‘No, I want to do something bigger and more colorful – members of the orchestra together with the Pacific Chorale. I know exactly the program I want to do.’”

The program included a world premiere (“Hymn of Healing”) and works by Haydn, Mozart and former Pacific Symphony composer-in-residence Frank Ticheli. Some reflected directly on tragedy and loss; others weren’t themed specifically to the concert. “I wanted it to be a concert of healing but not every piece being reflective and sorrowful,” St.Clair said. “I included Haydn’s Symphony No. 49. It does have a darkness to it, a sadness and a melancholy mood. But other works are uplifting, such as Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate.”

A Subdued and Reverent Evening

St.Clair, the symphony members and chorale singers were aptly clad in black. The director said the concert, and its creation and preparation, had left everyone at Pacific Symphony “with a greater love and respect for one another” and wished the same for the audience “upon leaving here tonight.”

Concert of Healing,’ Geneva Presbyterian Church, Laguna Woods

Wednesday, Aug. 3

Carl St.Clair, conductor
Members of Pacific Symphony
Members of Pacific Chorale
Anna Schubert, soprano

Nichols: Hymn of Healing (world premiere)
Ticheli, There Will Be Rest
Haydn: Symphony No. 49 “La passione”
Paulus: The Road Home
Mozart: Ave Verum Corpus
Mozart: Exsultate Jubilate
Newton: Amazing Grace (with the congregation)

Addressing the audience between musical selections, Rev. Marsh and his colleague, Rev. Lee, displayed considerable emotion, with gratitude at the forefront. The same could be said for St.Clair and his musicians and vocalists, who used the music to express their feelings. The “Hymn of Healing” proved a graceful, stirring work, the chorus’ voices swelling with emotion, and nearly all of the selections were pensive, carrying somber, melancholy undercurrents.

If the audience was more subdued, it was out of a sense of reverence for the occasion and respect for the ordeal suffered by those the concert was meant to heal. Still, applause wasn’t just formal or polite. In several cases it was a reaction to PSO’s consummate skill, and Schubert’s solo in the joyful, evening-ending Mozart work garnered a standing ovation. The entire congregation then joined the symphony and chorale in performing and singing “Amazing Grace.”

In addressing the gathering, Rev. Lee, the Taiwanese congregation’s minister, said he recognized “the healing power of the music. I’m especially grateful to Rev. Marsh and so grateful for your (the audience’s) support. To update you, we went through six sessions of trauma and grief counseling and are doing well.” Marsh and his staff, he said, “have tried their best to help us recover.”

Sam Nganga, who was in the church’s kitchen on May 15 when the shooting occurred, attended the concert. He said that another congregation member “crawled through the kitchen doorway, we went outside, and called 9-1-1.” Nganga clocked the police response at four-and-a-half minutes. Dr. Cheng, Nganga said, “saved my life. If it were not for him, I could be among those who were killed.”

Nganga called the concert an example of “how people came together” not just earlier this week, but from the moment of the shooting. He and others present “spent the whole afternoon with the FBI. We started our healing that day. That togetherness began on that day. You see people now working together being part of the Geneva Church, all healing as one.”

Nganga said he places the events of the memorial musical performance “in a context that, to me, is great. The music was fantastic, and it shows the compassion they (the symphony) have. All were united by this. I really appreciate that.” The concert’s message, according to Nganga, was, “Hope for all of us. It brought people together. It doesn’t matter who you are. We’re coming together through prayers and to comfort one another.”

U.S. Representative Katie Porter (45th Congressional district) and John Forsyte, president and CEO of Pacific Symphony. Porter was in attendance to show her support for the residents of Laguna Woods, the community she represents. Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

U.S. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) was one of the VIPs in attendance. “This was a wonderful evening,” Porter said. “It was very special to be back in this space. To come together as a community in the space where we experience grief is a powerful symbol of the way we honor each other and the way we strive to get past this tragedy.”

Pastor Ryan Romberg from Geneva Presbyterian Church reflected on the concert’s significance: “It honored the weight of all that happened on campus and ended in a hopeful tone, which I love. I also know that the entire evening was intentionally put together by the symphony’s director (St.Clair).”

Romberg said, “What really stood out to me the most is that I know how meaningful the form of music that we heard tonight is for the Taiwanese congregation and how healing that can be and what an absolute gift that is. It absolutely honored the gift of Dr. John Cheng and the life he gave. I’m really grateful for all that.”

In addressing the audience at the close of the evening, Rev. Marsh also singled out Cheng: “He’s the one who gave his life for the safety of the other 41 people in that room. What a gift.”

Marsh said the idea of having a memorial concert started to come together in late May and he closed the evening by thanking the symphony, chorale, St.Clair and the entire organization “for how you helped us move forward.”

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at emarchesewriter25@gmail.com.

Classical music coverage at Voice of OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Voice of OC makes all editorial decisions.

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