Band trumpets debut of Pittsburgh Gospel Choir

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The River City Brass Band will swing to "Sing, Sing, Sing" and the Pittsburgh Gospel Choir will sing hymns and spirituals -- on the same program.

It's an unusual concert that heralds an even more unusual collaboration.

Pittsburgh Gospel Choir, debut concert, with River City Brass Band and Joe Negri.
  • Where: East Liberty Presbyterian Church
  • When: 4 p.m. Saturday
  • Tickets: Free; 1-800-292-7222

Without the RCBB, the newly formed choir might not be launching at all.

The collaboration allows the choir to operate under the band's board and use its administrative staff rather than create its own.

"There are no financial risks to the River City Brass Band," says its music director, Denis Colwell. Assisted by Murrysville businessman Ralph Murray, the board of the brass band has agreed to sponsor the choir.

"It is good for us and good for the community. Pittsburgh doesn't have a self-standing gospel choir, but the scene is vital."

The choir's director, Herbert Jones, said a meeting with Colwell and Murray's vision helped the choir "come into being."

That vision is that gospel music is "multi-ethnic, multi-age and cross-cultural and that the best concept is to attach it to an established group," says Colwell. Such a sponsorship is unusual in the arts world, although not unheard of with gospel choirs. Choirs in St. Louis, Charleston and Akron, for instance, are associated with orchestras.

"We will have our separate and combined schedules," says Jones. "The Gospel Choir can do what it needs to do and it does not affect the RCBB, but we have agreed to do at least one concert a year with them." Jones plans additional collaborations with orchestras, dance troupes and chamber ensembles.

Jones, who trained as a choral director and singer at the University of Mississippi, the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the University of Pittsburgh and elsewhere, wants the group to take full advantage of the situation.

"We don't want to be the typical gospel choir," he says. "You can go to any church and get that. We want to be atypical."

Jones' plan is not only to have a "well-balanced musical diet of spirituals, hymns, traditional and contemporary gospel and gospel anthems," but also to sing the standard choir repertoire. Among his favorites are Eric Whitacre, Charles Ives and Wolfgang Mozart. That variety reflects Jones' background in African-American music (he is active with the Gospel Music Workshop of America, several local gospel choirs and wrote his dissertation on composer Moses Hogan) and in classical music.

The Pittsburgh Gospel Choir is about 50 volunteer singers strong now, but Jones plans on increasing it to 100 or even 150 in the coming years.

If the choir works out in terms of artistic quality and of audience building, Colwell feels both Pittsburgh and the RCBB will benefit. "From my standpoint it makes sense to diversify the offerings of the River City Brass Band whenever possible."

Jones thinks the singers will impress. While Pittsburgh has a robust gospel scene, it hasn't had a public group rehearsing year-round.

"The more time you spend together, the more bonding takes place, socially and musically," he says. "The blend becomes more tight. For Pittsburgh this will be a 'wow' experience."

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at . He blogs at Classical Musings at .


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