The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh is best known as the choral partner of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, but it is an important artistic force in its own right. There are plenty of reasons for its success: the legacy left by music director emeritus Robert Page, the chorus’ relationship with the symphony and the successful combination of committed volunteer singers with a professional “core.”
Over the past decade, the most significant influence has been music director Betsy Burleigh, who has deepened its 107-year-old tradition. On Sunday at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, Ms. Burleigh led the choir in her last performance as music director. For the past couple of years, Ms. Burleigh, who works at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington, has made a seven-hour commute each week to rehearse with the Mendelssohn, and the taxing weekly trip was a major reason she decided to step down.
Her farewell concert showed what Pittsburgh will miss in her absence. The program highlighted the music of Maurice Durufle (1902-86), the French composer and organist who infused his small oeuvre with the melodic and rhythmic qualities of Gregorian chant. The centerpiece was Durufle’s “Requiem,” which is the composer’s most famous work and has become a pillar of the genre.
This “Requiem” is comparatively serene (for example, it lacks Dies irae), yet the choir, accompanied by organist Edward Alan Moore, rendered it powerfully. In a well-blended and striking account, Ms. Burleigh seemed to meet the eyes of every singer, and the members responded with equal focus.
Countertenor Andrey Nemzer, performing the solo composed for mezzo-soprano in Pie Jesu, sang with the drama and passion of an opera aria. Mr. Nemzer, a Pittsburgh favorite, seems to brighten every musical endeavor he touches. The performance did not use the accompanying cello that Durufle wrote for this section. In his two solo turns, baritone Matthew Hunt had a clear, dark-hued voice thoughtfully embroidered with vibrato.
The concert opened with “Quatre motets sur des themes gregoriens,” sung from the back balcony. The opening motet, “Ubi caritas,” was characterized by a smooth, rich blend from the choir’s men, and a solid, tautly balanced “Tantum ergo” concluded the quartet.
In between the choral works, Mr. Moore delivered a lucid and often glorious “Prelude, Adagio et Choral varie sur le theme du ‘Veni creator.’” Choir members offered a live rendition of the ancient plainchant that served as Durufle’s inspiration.
Elizabeth Bloom: email@example.com or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.