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Bach Choir's homage to steel to premiere at Carrie Furnace

| Wednesday, April 27, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Thomas Wesley Douglas leads the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh during rehearsals.
Shanae Phillips
Thomas Wesley Douglas leads the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh during rehearsals.

For Thomas Wesley Douglas, a tour of the Carrie Furnace presented one of those use-it-or-lose-it propositions.

For Nancy Galbraith, the idea prompted research that took on some of the intensity of work in the mills.

For singers of the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh, the job has meant rehearsals since January, focusing on precision in diction and accuracy in rhythm.

Those efforts will blend like iron, coal and heat to present “Smoke and Steel” April 30 and May 1. The work is a world premiere composition by Galbraith commissioned by the choir.

Taking the music directly to its inspiration, the concert will be at the Carrie Furnace Historic Site in Rankin.

It will be presented by the choir, a small orchestra and soloist Kevin Glavin.

“This is a piece about the steel industry and the people in it — and the way they built this town,” Galbraith says. “It is the same spirit that kept this town from dying when the steel mills did.”

The composition bears the title of the 1920 poem by Carl Sandburg that Galbraith found in her hunt for words.

“I came across ‘Smoke and Steel' and thought it was great,” says Galbraith, also a professor of composition at Carnegie Mellon University. “The names Pittsburgh and Braddock jumped out, and then I really knew it was perfect.”

She says she has tried to give the work “an American sound, maybe even an Appalachian sound” that also will have a “gritty as well as a mechanical palette where needed.”

The work will be presented at the site of the blast furnace that produced iron from 1907 to 1978. The concert also will feature images of Pittsburgh in its steel heyday.

They are from the collection of Bruce Wolf, president of the board of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, who has a collection of about 200 images depicting Pittsburgh from 1900 to 1940.

Wolf, a retired energy executive and lawyer from Shadyside, says a photographer from the Bach Choir took pictures of about 60 pieces put together by him and his wife, Sheryl.

“They were done by primarily European artists fascinated by the wonder of work,” he says. “Jean Emile Laboureur was the first artist to sketch the inside of the Edgar Thomson Works.”

That fascination with the “wonder of work” was fuel in the hearth of musical creation.

Douglas says he toured the Carrie Furnace site about three years ago and was captured by the “sense of nostalgia and history of the place.”

He says he thought it offered a good theme for a composition and felt he needed to organize it “before someone else did.”

Douglas took the idea to Galbraith and to the choir's board.

She started work almost immediately, but the board balked at the idea of an expensive project. It wasn't until about April of last year when the board approved it and planning could get under way.

Such projects are not simple or easy to accomplish, though. With the cost of the commission, the hiring of an orchestra, rental of the site and other staging expenses, “Smoke and Steel” will cost about $35,000, says Matt Dooley, managing director of the choir.

An anonymous donor offered $5,000 if the choir could match it, Dooley says. Responding to that offer, it set up an Indiegogo fundraiser, which brought in $7,500.

The project also provides artistic challenges. It is the first premiere work Douglas has conducted, and he realizes the composer might have different thoughts about his interpretations when she hears it.

Galbraith will not hear the work until April 28.

“I have a fair amount of confidence in my musical abilities,” says Douglas, who also conducts orchestras and performs musical theater productions across the nation. “But, naturally, I will honor the wishes of the composer.”

Those final steps present no worries, though.

“I'm not nervous,” he says. “I'm exhilarated.”

Bob Karlovits is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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