Jiayi He was joined by daughter, pianist Jenny He, and quintet PentaWinds, featuring flutist Abbe Krieger, oboist Suzette Jacobs, clarinetist Donna Dixon, hornist David Moldenhauer, and bassoonist Kukiko Otani, for the May 4th performance at First Presbyterian Church of Newtown on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst.
The event was part of a series of planned concert fundraisers at the church, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in September.
“It was my great honor to play and help benefit its historic restoration,” said He. “The façade’s color and form is striking. As for the interior, I love everything; its 1787 bell, stained glass, and an early map of Newtown.”
First Presbyterian Church of Newtown is one of Queens’ oldest churches. The structure dates to 1895, but the congregation goes back to 1652. In 1924, it survived a 125-foot move on greased logs in order to accommodate the widening of Queens Boulevard.
“As I sat in the church admiring the Tiffany windows, I thought of those early settlers who were making a new life in this country,” said concert-goer Joan Marilyn Barnes. “The church meant everything to them as they struggled to make a living.”
“Harmonica Music from Classical to Modern” featured 22 numbers, including Tchaikovsky’s “Little Swan Dance,” Gershwin’s “Swanee,” and Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz.” The concert also featured world premieres of "Cantabile for Solo Harmonica and Woodwind Quintet" and “Shades VIII” written by composers Michael Isaacson and Naresh Sohal, respectively.
“I always knew a harmonica had great range, if you really know how to play it,”said Barnes, “and Mr. He demonstrated that.”
He also exhibited a few of his greater than 300 harmonicas, which qualifies as the world’s most diverse collection. At times, he played multiple harmonicas for a single piece. The harmonica was invented in 1821 in Germany, but He also played the “sheng,” a Chinese reed instrument that is the 3,000 year-old forefather of the instrument.
“Jiayi He makes me want to learn more about the harmonica,” said Susan Blank, who topped off her concert experience by ringing the church’s 1787 bell with her husband. “The church had a chance to sparkle for those of us who only knew it from the outside.”
Within days of the concert, church historian Marjorie Melikian had already invited He back for an encore performance.
“I would love to do another concert,” said He
The church will hold an open house on May 17 and 18. The unveiling of the National Register of Historic Places plaque will take place on the front lawn on sunday at 12:30 p.m. If you would like to contribute to the restoration, send donations to First Presbyterian Church of Newtown c/o Marjorie Melikian, 54-05 Seabury St., Elmhurst, NY, 11373.