The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s music in a world premiere in Millvale, Pa., last weekend was counterintuitive in a host of ways. But much of great art is counterintuitive and disruptive, turning conventionality on its head — like a musical theater/hip-hop mashup about one of America’s founding fathers, for example, or, say, the trajectory of Bob Dylan’s career.
So, in a series of performances on Jan. 25-28, the 109-year-old Mendelssohn Choir, known mostly for its renditions of classical music and its work with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, took the stage at Mr. Smalls, a contemporary music venue in a repurposed 18th-century Catholic church known for hosting sold-out crowds for such cutting-edge acts as Snoop Dogg, Smashing Pumpkins and Interpol.
“This is the first choir to sing in this church in 20 years,” quipped Matthew Mehaffey, the Robert Page music director of the Mendelssohn Choir.
That Dylan’s songs — which spoke to and inspired a generation of the American counterculture — were performed in classical, hymnlike arrangements in a former church, further disrupted convention.
“Some say this music is inappropriate for a classical choir to cover,” said Steve Hackman, composer of the piece “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” and originator of FUSE at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
But Hackman pointed to Dylan’s 2016 award of the Nobel Prize in Literature — Dylan is the first songwriter to win that award — and noted how the “barrier between high art and low art disintegrated.”
About 80 singers, ranging in age from 20 to 80, took the stage to interpret an anthology of Dylan hits, including “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” They were accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble.
This is a new venture for us. And it is probably a new venture for any choir —doing a Dylan piece in a church.
Dylan has been covered by artists as diverse as the Ramones, Norah Jones, George Harrison, Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix. Covering Dylan is nothing new, but a classical cover is a rare twist.
Some pieces worked better than others. The Mendelssohn’s treatment of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” for example, became an enchanting lullaby, while its version of “Tangled Up in Blue” may have left some listeners longing for the raw intimacy of a single voice.
The oratorio was commission by a national consortium including the Mendelssohn, Minnesota’s Vocal Essence, New York City’s Baldwin Festival Chorus, Boston’s Chorus Pro Musica, the Susquehanna Valley Chorus and the Nashville Symphony, which will premiere an orchestral version of the piece later in 2018.
The Mendelssohn will reprise its choral performance in June 2018 on the main stage at the Three Rivers Arts Festival.
The oratorio “crosses the boundary between rock music and classical music,” noted Mehaffey. “This is a new venture for us. And it is probably a new venture for any choir — doing a Dylan piece in a church.”
Liz Berlin, Mr. Smalls co-founder and a member of the Pittsburgh-based rock group Rusted Root, said that bringing the Mendelssohn to her music venue was a “full-circle moment” because both her parents sang in the Mendelssohn for many years. Her father, Cantor Richard Berlin, is the former spiritual leader of Parkway Jewish Center in Monroeville.
Berlin’s musical roots are also in classical music, as she was a founding member of the Children’s Festival Chorus.
Mehaffey, who is in his second year of directing the Mendelssohn, brought the choir to Mr. Smalls as part of his agenda of taking the choir into new venues.
“Choral music is interesting because it’s community-oriented,” he said. “And there are a lot of young people in the choir. We are trying to do themed concerts to connect with different communities.”
Last year, for example, the Mendelssohn performed a full choral piece about Anne Frank called “Annelies” at Rodef Shalom Congregation, in collaboration with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
“We’re trying to meet the audience where it’s at,” he said.
The Mendelssohn Choir is composed of volunteer members and professional “core” singers, according to Mehaffey. While some have had musical training, others have not.
“Some are doctors or teachers or steelworkers,” he said. “Some have been in the choir for over 40 years, and some are new each year. We are like a family.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at