Thomas Douglas, artistic director and conductor of the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh, has a deep curiosity about history. Sometimes, at social gatherings, he’ll throw out a question like, “How many of you know the full name of your paternal grandfather?”
“That’s where the stories really start,” he says with a chuckle. “I always hope to stir up people’s interest in their own heritage.”
That’s the spirit behind the Bach Choir’s 81st season, which opens this weekend with America: Makers and Dreamers. For this season, the organization, which is known for its bold mix of traditional and unconventional works, will present a series of concerts dealing with the idea of work from a historical perspective. In March, the choir will present a program of work and union songs; in April, it will close the season with “Smoke and Steel,” a commissioned piece to be performed at Carrie Furnace, a decommissioned U.S. Steel blast furnace, which is now a historical site.
The theme was inspired by a tour Douglas took of the Carrie Furnace. Though the site is only a couple of miles from where he lives, he was initially surprised to learn it was there. “But there are a lot of people who worked really hard and really struggled in those mills,” he says. “Something should be done to talk about … that whole generation of workers who really worked hard to create Pittsburgh and America.”
America: Makers and Dreamers features pieces which celebrate the American aspirational spirit, including Aaron Copeland’s “The Promise of Living,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow” and works by Randall Thompson based on the poetry of Robert Frost. The performances will take place at the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District. That space is currently in transition, Douglas says, “So it’s really rough and austere-looking, not like a refined concert hall.” Which, for a concert like this, felt like the perfect choice of venue.
Ultimately, “we wanted to surround the subject of how we got to where we are today,” Douglas says. “To me, it feels like so much of our society doesn’t really give enough credit to the people who got us to where we are.”