Review: Mendelssohn Choir shows off new look with the music of 'Downton Abbey'
October 9, 2016 4:01 PM
The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh's new music director, Matthew Mehaffey.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A year ago, the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh sang for the final time under then-music director Betsy Burleigh, whose last concert, at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, centered on the music of Maurice Durufle.
On Saturday night, the choir returned to that church, but the program and circumstances couldn’t have been more different. The performance marked the debut of music director Matthew Mehaffey, an Upper St. Clair native who lives in Minnesota. And the theme of the show? Well, another show: “Downton Abbey,” the popular and addictive TV series set in England around World War I.
As this well-attended and creative concert illustrated, the future seems bright, musically and otherwise, for Pittsburgh’s leading chorus.
The program contextualized a varied group of English choral music with the fictional events of “Downton Abbey.” On a mini-set, two costumed actors, Helena Ruoti and Erika Strasburg, described the historical background of the music and drew connections with the show’s plot. (The characters were depicted as distant relations of the show’s Violet, dowager countess of Grantham.)
Each half of the program opened with music by “Downton” composer John Lunn, before moving into works that had varying degrees of ties to the show’s events and time period. Hubert Parry’s 1916 work “Jerusalem,” for example, “was originally conceived as a patriotic wartime hymn, but Parry would later reject this nationalistic sentiment as he learned of the horrific carnage brought by the war,” Ms. Ruoti said. The composer later assigned the work’s copyright to the women’s suffrage movement — a particular passion of “Downton” character Sybil Branson. That historical context cast this choral chestnut in a fresh and vivid light.
The program offered an enticing mix of works both familiar and rare. In this first collaboration, Mr. Mehaffey and the choir already exhibited a strong musical rapport. Under his smooth, attentive gestures, the choir achieved feathery warmth in “As Torrents in Summer” and steely (yet not cold) colors in “The Snow,” both by Elgar.
Mr. Mehaffey, who debuted this program with the Oratorio Society of Minnesota, controlled the singers without micromanaging them, his gestures confident but not overbearing. The singers and conductor melded closer over the course of the evening, capturing the shifting moods and shades of Handel’s “The Ways of Zion Do Mourn” with easy unity.
The orchestral complement had issues of balance and precision that were exacerbated by the church’s echoic acoustics, but it offered memorable shimmering textures in Patrick Hadley’s “Nightfall.” As soloists, Matthew Hunt (“Nightfall”) and Stephen Schall (Vaughan Williams’ “Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge”) could have expressed themselves with more extroversion, while the appropriately theatrical Anastasia L. Robinson (Arne’s “Rule, Britannia!”) was shrill in the upper part of her range.
Ms. Ruoti distinguished herself as Lady Alice, the Maggie Smith-like character, speaking slowly to let the details she was sharing sink in with the audience. Still, I imagine the script was a lot of information to absorb for audience members who did not have the benefit of reading it ahead of time, like I did. I’m also not sure the program necessitated the use of two actors, as the young, eager Millicent Danford role portrayed by Ms. Strasburg did not add much.
The evening also featured a trio of sing-alongs: “Jerusalem,” “Rule, Britannia!” and Holst’s “I Vow to Thee, My Country.” Three seemed superfluous, and “Rule, Britannia!” — which concluded the concert on a festive note — would have been adequate. The choir even provided Union Jacks for audience members to wave. Perhaps they were pledging allegiance to the new-look Mendelssohn Choir.
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