Mendelssohn Choir Of Pittsburgh Rocks Bob Dylan With Steve Hackman at the Helm
Bob Dylan's ability to hold conversation through song first captured my attention. He has retained my attention for twenty years. His words exceed the constraints of a single context. After all, the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature doesn't simply land in one's lap. The chorus of "Like a Rolling Stone" (How does it feel, how does it feel? To be on your own, with no direction home. A complete unknown, like a rolling stone) is the batter-up song to any turnabout in my life, where the unknown is the only thing I know for certain.
Last night, nestled in the back row of Mr. Smalls Theatre next to my husband, I experienced these lyrics, along with 13 other Dylan classics, by way of collective voices. The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh [MCP] , the city’s oldest performing arts organization, performed the world premiere of Steve Hackman's "The Times They Are A-Changin': The Music of Bob Dylan" and it blew me away.
The Bob Dylan-inspired oratorio (a large-scale musical work for voices and orchestra) was composed by Steve Hackman, a conductor, arranger, producer and songwriter who is paving the way for cross-genre pieces. This project was commission by a national consortium including the Mendelssohn, Minnesota’s Vocal Essence, New York City’s Baldwin Festival Chorus, Boston’s Chorus Pro Musica, Susquehanna Valley Chorus, and the Nashville Symphony.This weekend is Hackman's only scheduled performance in Pittsburgh this year. His enthusiasm was palpable last night, yelling "Bring it on!" prior to slowly unleashing the voices of the MCP in a tender opening of "The Times They Are A-Changin'." This song became the story-like anchor leading us through the course of the piece.
Diving into Hackman's previous work and listening to his 2016 TEDxPittsburgh talk, I was impressed by his synergic vision. He is not afraid to combine genres existing in different lanes; championing the renaissance of classical and popular music. His previous mash-ups, live on his home page, are now in my musical rotation, especially when writing. Copland V. Bon Iver (video below) is my preferred choice. After last night's experience, however, it will be sharing air time.
The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh is the first choir to bring Hackman's composition of Bob Dylan's music to life. This performance was about bringing two entities, which on the surface may seem like oil and water, together to create something visceral. It was unbiased to generations and musical taste. As Hackman said, "Tonight is very much about breaking convention."
While maintaining the conversational tone Dylan is renowned for, the music was delivered through a fresh interpretation. Listening to 70+ voices, with a small instrumental foundation, sing "Like a Rolling Stone" lyrics, lyrics I live by, was riveting. The power of the words was matched with a powerful physical presence. If the collective sound was visible, every crevasse of the once 18th century Catholic church would be saturated leaving the audience blind with nothing but the music to inhale. The choral bodies swayed to the rhythm like a rolling wave in open waters. I couldn't help but mimic their motion. There was an ease to listening inspired by the fun being had on stage. With every collective gasp, I met Dylan's music for the first time all over again.
As Hackman introduced the finale piece of the performance, Matthew Mehaffey, Robert Page Music Director of The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, slipped in the aisle seat beside me. He directed the choir in an opening performance which included Hackman's arrangement of Alleluia/Hallelujah and Radiohead's Creep. The members of MCP descended off stage to surround the audience. During this movement, Mehaffey's facial expression captured the physical manifestation of my experience. He was beaming. Sitting tall and noble, his pride of the Choir, of Hackman, could not be contained to the folding wooden chair. Together, Hackman and Mehaffey collectively led The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh in "Blowin' In the Wind," bringing the collaboration full circle.
Full circle was the theme of the night, and the entire joint effort. Hackman brought Dylan's iconic distinction to a choral setting merging oil and water. A choral performance paid homage to a repurposed church and the countless choirs of its past life. Not to mention, the parents of Liz Berlin, Co-founder of Mr. Smalls and member of the band Rusted Root, sang in the Mendelssohn under the direction of Robert Page. Now the same choir sings under her roof. "The Times They Are A-Changin': The Music of Bob Dylan" was a round trip, penetrating experience.
From now on, with every drop of the stylus needle on one of my Bob Dylan records, I will recall the novelty of this night. I highly reccomend experiencing it for yourself.
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
"The Times They Are A-Changin'" ~ Bob Dylan
All Photos by Sarah Collins of Rose Colored Creative. Cheers to our first project of the year!
The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, directed by Matthew Mehaffey, is a symphonic chorus composed of volunteer members and professional “core” singers. I am beyond grateful to them and Liz Fetchin for this invite.
To discover more about Steve Hackman and his groundbreaking work, check out the below.