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Music Review: Bach Choir breaks the holiday mold

Friday, December 14, 2001

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

The holidays can mean cruise control for performing groups. There's a set repertoire, established expectations, lengthy traditions. If they want to break out of that mold, they have to make a new one as well.

Bach Choir Of Pittsburgh
The Pittsburgh Symphony Brass

WHERE and WHEN: Westminster Presbyterian Church, Upper St. Clair, Sun. 7 p.m.; Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland, Mon. 8 p.m.

TICKETS: $18, $14 senior, $7 students. 412-394-3353.


The Bach Choir of Pittsburgh will try to do that with its holiday concert, "In Dulci Jubilo" this weekend. The group has taken the blueprint for a regular season concert and applied it to Christmas. Led by Brady Allred, the Choir has said no mas to the "Messiah" and adieu to "Amahl" and instead has commissioned five -- count 'em -- five new holiday compositions. Sweetening the deal is that the Choir is collaborating with the Pittsburgh Symphony Brass, all but assuring that the music will have an impact for years to come.

That's not just because the Symphony Brass is made up of expert players or because the Choir will record the music for an upcoming CD, but because there's little music written for mixed chorus and brass sextet. Most music of this type is for choir and quintet.

It was a challenge that attracted the composers involved, including the renowned Stephen Paulus. "More and more today, commissions are made to fit the needs of the groups," he says. "Obviously composers have parameters. If somebody asked me to write for choir and six tubas I probably would have said that doesn't fire up the muse. The Bach Choir idea intrigued me enough so I thought, sure. If someone now asks me if I have anything for choir and brass -- do I ever."

Paulus' three-part work, "We Sing Thy Birth," is based on texts from Shakespeare ("Hamlet"), John Milton and Paul Laurence Dunbar. It has a holiday music theme, more or less, but it isn't the cliched stuff.

The other world premieres also add to the Christmas repertoire: "Two Carols" by Mack Wilberg, "The Dream Isaiah Saw" by Glenn Rudolph, "Wither's Carol" by Kieren MacMillan and "Cantate Hodie (Sing Forth This Day)" by Joseph Wilcox Jenkins. Two of the composers, Rudolph and Jenkins, are local.

One group of listeners already has shown its support for the project, the National Endowment for the Arts, which partially funded the production of the CD. "They liked the fact that we were going to collaborate with the Brass and commission works for this combination of brass players -- because you don't usually get this number of them," says Allred. "Part of our mission has been to make the public aware of great choral music and foster new choral music. Every season in the last seven we have had a new work."

That's saying a lot for what is a pro-am group with about 20 of the 130 singers paid. "The people that are there are there because they love to sing, granted they don't all have a great vocal ability, but they have a desire and that has manifested itself in the extra work in getting performances for the composers. Even though they are called amateurs they have professional attitudes to do their best."

The truth is, when an artistic group is willing to experiment, it's always a risk, but they all are guaranteed to develop. The audience hears new takes on the classic holiday story, the singers learn new works and the composers challenge themselves. As Paulus puts it, "It allows me to grow as an artist."

More than you'd expect during the holidays.

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