Preview: It’s Beethoven and Brahms for Mendelssohn Choir
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh joined the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for a concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall this spring, the chorus showed it was not simply an accompanying ensemble but also a partner in the PSO’s music-making process. That the evening began with an a cappella performance of Bruckner’s “Ave Maria” — with choir members singing alone — speaks to that relationship.
“They totally surpassed their previous level and set a whole new standard,” said Robert Moir, the PSO’s senior vice president of artistic planning and audience engagement.
The Mendelssohn is riding the success of that experience, which occurred during the hall’s lauded Spring for Music Festival, to a concert on Sunday featuring works by Beethoven and Brahms. The choir’s music director, Betsy Burleigh, will conduct the chorus and the PSO in the performance.
The Mendelssohn offered the best choral performance in four years at Spring for Music, in the view of Mary Lou Falcone, one of the festival’s founders. The chorus’s tradition of excellence was established under former music director Robert Page, Ms. Falcone said, and it has been maintained under the leadership of Ms. Burleigh, who came on in 2006.
“It was an extraordinary performance of great subtlety, great musicality and simply great singing,” said Ms. Falcone, who said she thinks the Mendelssohn is one of the top three choruses in the country.
Most singers of the 110-member-strong chorus are volunteers, with 20 paid singers. Roughly half are 40 or younger. The majority of them don’t have day jobs in music — among their ranks are a software engineer, a barista, a casino dealer, nurses, students, teachers, retirees and lawyers.
“The Pittsburgh Symphony is made up of extremely highly trained musicians who come from all over the world … the Mendelssohn Choir is made up of everyday Pittsburghers who just practiced, practiced, practiced and made it to Carnegie Hall and did the city proud,” the PSO’s Mr. Moir said.
“Other than that, these people are just classical music nerds,” he said.
At a recent choir rehearsal, “there seemed to be an unspoken acknowledgment that we had indeed raised the performance bar to a new level in New York,” said chorus member Larry Wright. “By the end of our retreat and first rehearsal of the fall season, it was obvious that the choir had reached out to grab that bar set in New York and had already begun pulling ourselves to a new level for this coming year.”
Sunday’s concert, titled “Faith & Fate,” features Brahms’ “Schicksalslied” (“Song of Fate”) and Beethoven’s Mass in C major. Several choir members will be soloists.
“The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is the Mendelssohn Choir’s primary artistic partner. Usually this means that the Mendelssohn Choir that performs with the PSO as a ‘guest artist.’ What makes [this weekend's] concert so thrilling for us is that the tables are being turned; we are producing the concert, and the PSO is performing for the Mendelssohn as its orchestra under Betsy’s baton,” said chorus executive director Mary Ann Lapinski. “This ‘role reversal’ speaks to the mutual respect that the PSO and MCP have for each other’s artistic excellence and vision.”
“We’re having dinner in our house this time,” Ms. Burleigh said.
While Ms. Burleigh selected the Beethoven based on the size of the chorus and orchestra and on the concert space (East Liberty Presbyterian Church), she was later surprised to learn the Mendelssohn has never performed the work in full.
The Mass’s Kyrie opens with the basses briefly singing alone, “and then it all begins. There are just some lovely intimate touches that are very moving,” Ms. Burleigh said. It also bookends well with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which the ensembles will perform together in June. “I like that symmetry,” she said.
“Faith & Fate” also provides another concert opportunity and revenue stream for the chorus, which had been tapped for PSO performances of “Daphnis et Chloe” and film music from “Gladiator” that were canceled, Ms. Lapinski said.