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Bach Choir of Pittsburgh is taking a beloved, holiday classic in a new direction

| Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, 5:45 p.m.

Thomas Douglas feels confident at taking the “Messiah” into space, but says he has to be cautious about its orbit.

“People want us to do it every year,” says the director of the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh. “But I've been trying to do it only every fourth year, so it doesn't get to be too much.”

Douglas' presentation of the famous oratorio will return this year for two shows Dec. 3 and 4 at the St. Agnes Center at Carlow University in Oakland.

His reading of the George Frederick Handel work is called “Messiah in Space” and was presented for the first time in 2004. It is perhaps best known for two versions at the Hunt Armory in Shadyside in which the singers offered their words on and around armored vehicles.

“I thought that was just the perfect place to deal with choruses that wonder why we rage at each other,” he says, paraphrasing one of the famous lines from the work. “When you look at the world and all that is going on, singing there seems so appropriate.”

But just as Douglas would not want to approach a work with staid sameness, he is not going to be bound by same settings. He says he is pleased to return to the comfortable and acoustically beneficial setting at Carlow.

The “Messiah” was written in 1741, but the “In Space” version bears its name from the inspiration Douglas had for the piece. The work is done in the traditional setting, but takes a slightly different path into the musical stratosphere.

He says he got the idea while at the IMAX theater at the Carnegie Science Center on the North Shore, where his son, Justin, is the manager. Douglas thought spreading out the singers through the theater at various levels would provide a different way of experiencing the work.

The term “space” was going to be a play on words; having the music come from different spaces in an outer space-like setting.

When he couldn't arrange to do it there, he took the idea of putting the singers in space to St. Agnes, where they are spread throughout the hall.

Besides the positioning of the singers and orchestra being different than usual, Douglas also has made some changes to the music.

He has soloists singing some choir parts, for instance, or changed the sections of the voices that handle certain pieces.

“When you give listeners a different way of hearing a work, you make them think about the work a different way,” he says.

Making such changes gives life to a work that is done so frequently it can be too familiar, Douglas says. He says he has performed the “Messiah” at least 30 times in his career as a singer or conductor.

The changes, however, are done with total respect of the work, he adds.

“The changes are made in ways that do not diminish any performing practices,” he says.

Bob Karlovits is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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