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Mendelssohn Choir sings the music of Bob Dylan

| Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
Steve Hackman
Steve Hackman
Matthew Mehaffey
Matthew Mehaffey
Mendelssohn Choir
Alisa Garin Photography
Mendelssohn Choir

Breaking the mold can be fun, as the Mendelssohn Choir is finding in rehearsals for its next set of concerts. The august classical ensemble, usually heard with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Heinz Hall, is getting ready to perform the music of folk/rock legend Bob Dylan in a rock club.

“I'm trying to find ways to get new people to engage with choral music in a way they have not thought of before,” says artistic director Matthew Mehaffey. Performing with the Pittsburgh Symphony remains the choir's core mission, but it wants a “profile” of its own.

The Mendelssohn Choir will give the world premiere of Steve Hackman's “The Times They Are A-Changin' — The Words and Music of Bob Dylan” from Jan. 25 to 28 at Mr. Small's Theatre in Millvale.

Mehaffey and Hackman, known for his mashups of classical and popular music as artistic director of PSO Fuse, were brainstorming about a collaboration when Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature “for creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” and made their choice clear. The Mendelssohn Choir applied grants it had received for the collaboration and put together a consortium of choruses to commission Hackman's newest creation.

Hackman will conduct the premiere of his Dylan anthology on the second half of the show. It includes 14 songs and will last about 45 minutes.

“It's pretty much a straight presentation of the lyrics and tunes,” Mehaffey says. “He uses one verse of ‘The Times They Are A-Changin' at a time throughout the work to reset to the idea. He treats that piece almost like a plainchant for the choir, so it's really soft, smooth and very understated.”

Some songs receive a new and more classical slant in Hackman's version, according to Mehaffey. “For instance, we're doing ‘All Along the Watchtower,” which most people would likely know from the Jimi Hendrix version of it, which is quite heavy and strong. This one begins softly and builds. By the time we're singing the final chorus, the accompaniment is very much like a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.”

The first half of the concert, which will be led by Mehaffey, will include a Hackman mashup of The Beatles and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The other pieces were selected with an eye to immediacy, evocative qualities and accessibility.

These concerts will break new ground for the venue as well as the performers.

“We present all genres of rock music and folk music and lots of hip hop stuff. For us to have an event like this, which is kind of a mashup of classical and rock genres, is a really great direction for us to expand into. I'm really excited about it,” says Liz Berlin, owner of Mr. Smalls. She's also a noted performer as percussionist and singer of the Pittsburgh band Rusted Root.

Hosting the Mendelssohn Choir at her club also completes a personal circle.

“My parents actually sang in the Mendelssohn Choir, and as children my sister and I were founding members of the Children's Festival Chorus, which was born specifically to perform with the Mendelssohn Choir and Pittsburgh Symphony in Mahler's Symphony No. 3 with Michael Tilson Thomas,” she says. “And my parents are going to come into town for this show.”

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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