The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh's music director, Matthew Mehaffey, during rehearsal at Heinz Hall, Downtown.
The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh's music director, Matthew Mehaffey, during rehearsal at Heinz Hall.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Matthew Mehaffey could have crafted his debut program with the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh in a couple of different ways.
One option would have been to offer a concert of post-Edwardian choral music.
The other would have been to call it “The Music of Downton Abbey,” an interactive performance that brings together a script inspired by the popular TV show, actors in costume and that very same post-Edwardian choral music.
He went with the latter.
‘The Music of Downton Abbey,” Memdelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: East Liberty Presbyterian Church, 116 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty.
Tickets: $28-$40, $12-$30 for students, free-$5 for children under 12, at www.themendelssohn.org or 1-866-811-4111.
“I’m not interested in a choir concert of 15 pieces and then you just sing 15 pieces,” said Mr. Mehaffey, an Upper St. Clair native who lives in Inver Grove Heights, Minn. “But the ‘Downton Abbey’ concert is that. But there’s a reason that all the pieces all go together, and it’s not, ‘I like flowers, and so here’s 15 pieces about flowers.’ ”
As the Mendelssohn Choir’s new music director, Mr. Mehaffey, 41, has been tasked with leading the 108-year-old choral group into the future.
The Mendelssohn, the choral partner of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, quietly has shifted its focus in the past couple of years. Betsy Burleigh, the choir’s beloved former music director, resigned last year. The PSO has trimmed the number of choral works it presents, and the Mendelssohn has had to put on more of its own concerts. Ms. Burleigh, who drove from Indiana each week for rehearsals, felt she could not take on the additional duties of a largely self-produced season.
While the choir used to have a vibrant subscription series, its engagements with the PSO had taken up much of its schedule in recent years.
“There were some years where more choral works were programmed, so there was a lot of work available for the choir with the symphony, and it got to the point where they had to wait for the symphony schedule before they could make their own plans,” said Robert Moir, a former PSO administrator who was on the Mendelssohn’s search committee.
With fewer gigs at Heinz Hall, the choir, which includes volunteer and professional singers, now must grow its artistic identity, independent of the PSO. At the same time, it also must uphold the artistic tradition that made it the symphony’s go-to chorus in the first place. For many singers, that collaboration represents the choir’s most important work and is the main appeal of joining the group, said soprano Amelia D’Arcy Baisley, a member of the search committee.
This season, it is scheduled to perform Haydn’s “The Creation,” holiday pops and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the PSO, whose musicians are currently on strike.
“We realize that we occupy a somewhat unique role in the community because we are a community arts organization, but we have this phenomenal partnership that is now going on 92 years with the Pittsburgh Symphony,” executive director Mary Ann Lapinski said.
Those circumstances aside, the shift speaks to a larger challenge for music groups hoping to attract those elusive “new audiences” with experimental, immersive or themed programs.
It’s a big moment for the Mendelssohn, Pittsburgh’s oldest continuously performing arts organization, and Mr. Mehaffey, the choir hopes, will rise to the occasion.
A graduate of Upper St. Clair High School, Bucknell University, Westminster Choir College and the University of Arizona, Mr. Mehaffey also directs the Oratorio Society of Minnesota and is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota. While his nuclear family has moved away from Pittsburgh, he still has extended family in the area. As a tenor, he has sung much of the choral repertoire himself. As a conductor, he will have the dual challenges of preparing the choir for PSO music director Manfred Honeck, and designing and leading self-produced concerts himself.
He won’t be alone in shaping the future of the Mendelssohn, which is looking to local foundations and donors to meet its new artistic vision. The choir is a finalist for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts & Capitalization Pilot Program, a project from several local foundations to help cultural organizations improve their financial health and advance their missions. As a finalist, the Mendelssohn already has been matched with a consultant to develop a multiyear plan and could receive additional grants after completing that process, Ms. Lapinski said.
Audiences will have a window into the Mendelssohn’s evolution with the “Downton Abbey” concert on Saturday at East Liberty Presbyterian Church. Mr. Mehaffey premiered the program, which includes music by Elgar, Holst, Handel and “Downton” composer John Lunn, with the Oratorio Society in 2014. The two shows attracted 1,600 patrons who had never attended one of the group’s concerts, he said. Instead of traditional program notes, the concert features a script (performed here by Erika Strasburg and Helena Ruoti) that marries the music with the show’s storyline.
“The music sounds as rich as the show looks,” an audience member said after the first performance, according to the conductor’s welcome letter.
Under Mr. Mehaffey, you won’t ever hear 15 pieces about flowers. He brought a list of programming ideas to his interviews with the search committee, proposing concerts about baseball, the Greatest Generation or Fred Rogers and suggesting collaborations with local institutions such as the Pirates or the Heinz History Center. In February, the choir will perform James Whitbourn’s cantata “Annelies,” which is based on the diary of Anne Frank.
“His programming ideas certainly put him at the top of our radar,” said Ms. Baisley, who will be a featured soloist in the February concert. “It’s clear that he’s thinking about experiences that are more immersive for audiences.”
After his audition and interviews, the search committee thought Mr. Mehaffey was the right candidate. But then there was the matter of his residence in Minnesota. Ms. Burleigh’s difficult travel schedule had been an issue. Why should Mr. Mehaffey, a married father of four, not be turned off by the weekly commute?
So the search committee tested him, asking the conductor to return to Pittsburgh on short notice to discuss that matter. Mr. Mehaffey came prepared with a schedule of flights for the entire season. In fact, he believes the position will result in a net gain in time, because he has stepped down from a church job that took up many of his waking hours.
Spoiler alert: He passed the test.
“I have already bought all of my tickets for this coming year,” he said.
His next challenge is to persuade Pittsburghers to attend a concert of post-Edwardian choral music.
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1750 and Twitter: @BloomPG.
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