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Democrat Photo by Dan Hust

PRACTICED HANDS: Dennis McKelvey, one of Barbara Hust's inmate piano students at Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, plays a piece during the recent concert in the prison chapel.

An Ongoing Concert Series –
At a Local Prison

By Ted Waddell
FALLSBURG — July 14, 2000 – Sullivan Correctional Facility isn’t exactly the sort of place that comes to mind when you think of classical music.
The super-max state prison in Fallsburg is a place where guys do hard time after getting convicted of some pretty serious crimes – offenses like murder and arson.
But on Wednesday afternoon, June 28, about 50 inmates sat enthralled in the small prison chapel as they escaped to gentler times, aided by the music performed by professional musicians Ruth and LaMar Alsop, the featured performers during the facility’s second musical event, entitled “Nationalistic Flavors in Music.”
The series of mini-concerts is an ongoing effort with performing artists from the NYC Ballet Orchestra, based at Lincoln Center in New York City. The artists donate their time and talent.
Last December, violinist Luellen Abdoo performed at the facility. Oboist Randall Wolfgang and pianist Robert Owen performed during the first official musical event during March. More are planned every few months.
Wednesday’s concert also featured performances on the piano by three inmates who take piano lessons at the prison: Louis Gelsomino, Alan Kassebaum and Dennis McKelvey.
Ruth Alsop is a cellist and member of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, while her husband (violin and viola) was the concertmaster and soloist at the New York City Ballet Orchestra for over 25 years, in addition to performing in notable big bands and being a professional whistler. The husband-and-wife team performed as the Alsop Duo.
Following an introduction by prison piano teacher Barbara Hust (who, along with another member of the orchestra, helped organize the concert series), an opening prayer was offered by facility Chaplain Carl Stiglich. The opening hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” was sung by Gelsomino, accompanied by Hust on the piano.
The Alsops selected works to showcase the varied voices of their antique instruments (LaMar’s viola was made in 1550, while Ruth’s cello dates from 1702), and to cut across the threads of time and transcend nationalistic borders.
The program began with “Ricercare for Violin and Cello” by Alfredo Piatti and continued with works by Handel-Halvorsen, Reinhold Gliere, Walter Piston and Zoltan Kodaly. The Alsops closed with three Celtic dances for violin and cello, works that were commissioned and written for them by Dave Rimelis, a living American composer.
The inmates looked to the classical composers for their selected works: Gelsomino performed “Melodie Op.3, No. 3” by Sergei Rachmaninov, Kassebaum played Franz Liszt’s “Black Water in the Moonlight” and McKelvey performed “Minuet from the Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach” by Johann Sebastian Bach.
As the inmates sat transfixed in the tiny chapel, they appeared to be swept away by the strings. A pin drop could have been heard as the sounds echoed around the walls. Many of the inmates sat with their eyes closed, while others sat poised on the edges of their chairs during the performance, relieved for brief moments of the chains of their crimes.
In a sense, it was a study in contrasts, as hard-time inmates in for such crimes as murder, robbery, rape, serial killings and arson revealed a gentler aspect of their personality to the casual observer as they listened raptly to the performance.
According to Louis Gelsomino, who has been taking piano lessons for a couple of years while serving his sentence, music helps people attain a “higher moral standard.”
“It’s a shining program,” he said of the music lessons offered once a week to inmates by Barbara Hust, a resident of Kenoza Lake. “It has a real positive effect on us and is an introduction to a beautiful culture.”
Dennis McKelvey played sax in the 4th grade, but is now serving 21 years-to-life after being convicted of murder in the second degree. He has been taking piano lessons in prison since Sept. ‘99.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing, [because] one of the hardest things in prison is coping with the boredom,” he said. “It gives you a chance to work towards an accomplishment.”
“Barbara is a strong Christian,” said inmate piano student/performer Alan Kassebaum. “The program is very important because it helps take men’s minds off their individual problems. It’s a mix of God and music.”
James J. Walsh is superintendent of the Sullivan Correctional Facility. As a representative of the NYS Department of Correctional Services, he’s seen a lot of hard men doing a lot of hard time.
“Barbara is one of the many volunteers who come in to do things in the system,” he said. “We really benefit from the volunteers, because they provide a valuable resource to the department.”
According to Walsh, the cadre of volunteers serve as positive role models for the inmates.
“They’re good citizens, good people and set an example,” he said.
“This program has gone over really well,” he added. “Her students enjoy the lessons and the opportunity to learn a little more about music.”
The program of musical events began when Hust, a pianist at Hankins Assembly of God church, was invited to participate in voluntary prison ministry by Keith and Mark Peters of Callicoon and Woodbourne, respectively. The two brothers (both ordained ministers) – recently joined by their brother Jeff of North Branch – have been involved in outreach prison ministry for about ten years. Twice a month, members of the church conduct a worship service at the correctional facility.
After the death of her beloved husband, Phil, a few years ago, Hust decided to get involved in the outreach ministry program. Four years ago, she also founded Hope Ministries, a Christian counseling center in Kenoza Lake.
“The prison ministry is under the unofficial umbrella of Hope Ministries,” she said.
In the fall of 1996, Hust started volunteering her time as a piano teacher at the local super-max facility, working with hardcore criminals, teaching them to read music of all kinds.
According to Hust, she begins each half-hour lesson – once a week on Thursday – with a prayer.
“I come to the prison not only to give them piano lessons, but to encourage them with a love of Jesus Christ,” she said. “Their spirtitual life is more important to me than teaching them to play piano.
“Over the years, I have seen a lot of these guys grow spiritually as well as emotionally,” added Hust. “Music is responsible for a lot of changes in people’s lives, [and] I’ve seen big changes in some of these guys.”
Hope Ministries is also involved in a ministry program to prisoners on death row.
“We write letters of encouragement to inmates on death row,” said Hust.
She noted that there are currently about 3,600 prisoners on death row throughout the United States. So far, Hope Ministries has written to approximately 1,500 men and women sentenced to pay the ultimate price.
“All too often, people have a negative idea about everything that happens in a prison, and that inmates have no value to society,” concluded Hust.
“Through this music program and the little recitals, we reach out to these guys. It brings something positive to their lives and the community. We try to provide opportunites to make changes, both spiritually and through the music.”

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