A performance of the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh may not seem the most obvious place to find jazz bands, rock bands or dancers. But as one board member notes, this is not your grandfather's choir.
Founded in 1934, the choir walked a traditional line, performing Bach almost exclusively until eight years ago, when Thomas Douglas became artistic director. Growing up, Douglas' taste in music was eclectic, and it became more so once he reached college.
"I wondered, 'How do Motown and Mozart and opera and theater come together?'" Douglas says. "And what I'm finding now is that it can come together in a nice way."
Under his direction, the choir has provided a live soundtrack to Rupert Julian's silent film Phantom of the Opera, and incorporated African procession, and the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble, into a performance of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," making it "Carmina Burana Africana." For the current season, Convergence, the choir combines seemingly incompatible genres. For this season's first performance, "ConJuncTion," the choir was joined by Pittsburgh Big Band Legends and performed jazz standards.
Not everyone likes the nontraditional approach. When Douglas was hired, he was given freedom to diverge from a Bach-centric program ("The Mendelssohn Choir doesn't just do Mendelssohn," he points out), but he lost some members who wanted to stick to the masterwork. However, he says, "The ones I've gained know our reputation and want to do something a little more edgy." Moreover, Douglas adds: "Bach was an innovator himself. I think he would be really cool with what we're doing."
Joining the choir's next performance, "Consolidation — An A Cappella Celebration," will be the Pitt Men's Glee Club and the Oakland Girls Choir, performing works by composers ranging from the 16th century to the modern. In April, the Bach Choir closes its season with "Contradiction," a concert to be joined by a rock band composed of local musicians.
"I think some of these compositions, the chord progressions can be played by anyone in any style," Douglas says. "I just really want people to connect, and music is the vehicle I have for that."