Bach Choir director expands boundaries
By Bob Karlovits
Published: Saturday, January 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
He has put together concerts in a tank-filled Hunt Armory in Shadyside or amid the sound-bouncing glass of the PPG Wintergarden, Downtown.
He has brought to Pittsburgh new works or changes in older ones, such as adding an African flavor to a work by a German composer.
“People keep wondering, What are they going to do next?' ” says Penny Morel, an alto from the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh. “And so do we.”
Artistic director Thomas Wesley Douglas has taken an ensemble that was formed in 1934 exclusively to sing the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and turned it into a group that energetically explores music new and old.
It still performs the works of Bach, but when it does so in April, it will be sung over films starring Charlie Chaplin. It also is an ensemble that performs new works such as “Alzheimer's Stories,” which it did in October. Or it did the Pittsburgh debut of Leonard Bernstein's “Mass,” written in 1971 but never performed here in its entirety until the choir did it in 2007.
Susan Davis of Squirrel Hill says she and her husband, John Pierce, started attending the choir's concerts when a friend began singing in it. Douglas' programming has them hooked, she says.
“There is always something different,” she says. “When he had the choir singing to ‘Joan of Arc' (a silent film from 1928), it blew me away.”
Matthew Dooley, a singer who is also managing director of the choir and on its board of directors, says Douglas was clear about one element in his earliest days interviewing for the choir.
“He wanted to make sure it was not just a stand-down, sing-atcha group,” Dooley says,
He believes Douglas has accomplished that, moving the concerts to lively places and programming music that goes from traditional works such as the “St. John Passion” to a concert version of Stephen Sondheim's “Sweeney Todd.”
“It's been great for the singers and the city,” Dooley says.
Morel also is enthusiastic about Douglas' work.
“There is always something challenging,” she says, “and I am happy to explore new things.”
Douglas believes a fresh look at music is easy to understand.
“Why not?” he says with a shrug and a laugh.
Directing funerals or music
Thomas Wesley Douglas admits to “stream of consciousness” in his concert-planning.
He says he tries to listen to people's words to find out what they might me thinking about. Even when the thoughts might be in different discussions, it gives him pause, he says.
When he heard talk about Bach and movies, it led to putting together the upcoming concert with Chaplin films.
Another stream led him to his career.
Douglas, 56, the father of two adult children, grew up in Homewood-Brushton but moved to Wilkinsburg and graduated from high school there. His father was a funeral director and Douglas went to what is now Clarion University to study biology and follow him in the job.
But, always interested in music, he got involved in artistic activities at Clarion and eventually got a degree in music education. After teaching for several years at Keystone High School in Clarion County, he studied for a master's in music with an emphasis in vocal performance at Duquesne University, which he finished in 1984.
It led to a multifaceted career that has seen him conduct orchestral, oratorio, theatrical and opera performances, including “Ain't Misbehavin'” in Malaysia and 400 shows of “Phantom of the Opera” in Switzerland.
As a singer, he has performed as Caiaphas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and done several series of concerts as a vocalist with River City Brass.
Besides his work with the Bach Choir, Douglas is director of the Newton Mid-Kansas Symphony Orchestra and the Music Theater of Wichita.
Since 1991, he has been teaching in the music and drama schools at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is an associate teaching professor.
Denis Colwell, head of the CMU school of music, was director of the brass band when Douglas sang with it. He says he was the band's “most popular guest performer” and jokes about how Douglas always made him nervous because “he probably would have done a better job conducting” at any point in the shows.
“He is a consummate professional,” Colwell says. “He is a tremendous pianist, vocalist, performer and conductor.”
A look for something new
Douglas sometimes thinks the breadth of his interests could be holding him back, because arts planners don't know where to place him.
But Dooley says that wide outlook is what impressed the Bach Choir board when Douglas applied for the directorship.
He says the choir's 19-member board was looking for someone to take the ensemble in an innovative direction when it began searching for a replacement of former director Brady Allred. Allred left the choir to become director of choral studies at the University of Utah in 2003.
Douglas says that when he applied for the Bach Choir position, he presented a plan for three years of programs, each of which included a work by Bach “to stay true to the choir's heritage.”
“When they said that wasn't what they were looking for, I said, ‘OK, well, let's try something different,' ” he recalls.
That led to a more adventurous proposal that resulted in his being named interim director for the 2004-05 season and full-time director the next year.
“When we offered him a one-year contract, he said he thought it was better if it would be longer,” Dooley says, “and we loved that, because it proved commitment.”
Colwell says he was often surprised at Douglas' programming largely because “there just wasn't a precedent for it.”
But he thinks it worked because Douglas was “fearless and relentless in great creative thinking.”
Robert S. Cohen, the New Jersey-based composer of “Alzheimer's Stories,” is impressed with Douglas' planning and execution.
He says Douglas' direction made that concert “one of the better performances I have seen of that piece.”
Douglas says he wants to keep his career moving in that direction. He says he wants to focus on his conducting and has a great desire to do Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's “Don Giovanni” and “The Magic Flute.”
But he knows the range of his work sometimes makes it hard to understand him. He says that sometimes drama students look at him as “a fuddy-duddy classical guy” while music students see him as a “theater guy who doesn't know about music.”
Being able to handle both sides of the art is, in fact, a benefit, he says.
“You would think it would be something they would really reach out for,” he says.
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7852.
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