When one thinks of Pittsburgh’s Mendelssohn Choir, what likely comes to mind is 70 voices joining to create one marvelous voice, replete with harmony and smooth texture. And when one thinks of Bob Dylan, what comes to mind is unconventional vocal work and rhythms bolstered by unbridled emotion and heartfelt poetry. Now imagine the work of Dylan rearranged and reinvented to be performed by the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh.
At Mr. Smalls Theatre, Steve Hackman and the Mendelssohn Choir will be performing the world premiere of The Times They Are A-Changin’, a re-imagination of Bob Dylan’s work in a choral setting.
It’s a mighty challenge to make Dylan’s work compatible with a classically trained choir, but conductor, composer, arranger and producer Steve Hackman was determined to make it happen.
Hackman is known for his arrangements that bring contemporary and classical artists together in one score: Radiohead and Brahms; Björk and Bartók; Coldplay and Beethoven; Bon Iver and Copland; and Drake and Tchaikovsky. Each of these unlikely pairings was part of the FUSE series, in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
But The Times They Are A-Changin’ was a different challenge for Hackman, as the project was brought to Hackman by the Mendelssohn Choir, rather than being a concept he initiated.
“With Radiohead and Björk, I know that music cover-to-cover. I could sit down at a piano and play it all right now,” explains Hackman, speaking to City Paper by phone from New York City. “But with Dylan, I only knew the hits every American knows.”
“His vocal delivery was a major deterrent for me in the beginning of this project to find an entry point into his music,” Hackman says. “Every time I’d try, I’d be like, ‘I don’t like this.’ It wasn’t until I started to understand the context of the music, his story, the Village in NYC, the story of our country in those turbulent times, that’s when it all clicked for me.”
Once Hackman began to fall in love with Dylan’s work, he focused on translating the music in a way that would be engaging in a choral setting. It was Dylan’s rhythmic delivery that gave him the most trouble in terms of classic translation and notation.
“How do I notate ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ to a 70-voice choir in a way that the musicians can understand it, but it’s still emotionally effective?” asks Hackman. “[The Mendelssohn Choir], of course, want it to be polished and well executed and refined, but they want you to feel it, as well.”
Hackman continues, “I can guarantee polar reactions, and I hope for that, honestly. I mean, these songs are so powerful and speak in such a true, visceral way about the human condition, so when you multiply that with all these forces and the epic, fantasy-type treatments — it’ll be overwhelming emotionally.”
“There are people I’m sure who are not going to prefer that. They’d rather have his lone voice, and his guitar, singing ‘Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.’ I won’t be the first person to cause uproar with a re-imagination of his music, because he did that his entire career,” says Hackman, with a laugh.
The performance, which will feature songs such as “All Along the Watchtower,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” will take place at Mr. Smalls, a refurbished church and a Pittsburgh venue typically reserved for rock and hip-hop concerts.
“I think what I want to convey is that the Mendelssohn Choir’s performance needs to be more casual, folk-like, colloquial in tone,” says Hackman. “I think [performing at Mr. Smalls] is going to help the singers get into that vocal mode, as opposed to being in Heinz Hall, given the rock context of the venue.”
For Liz Berlin, co-founder of Mr. Smalls and a member of Rusted Root, having the Mendelssohn Choir perform for the first time at the venue will bring her musical life in Pittsburgh full circle.
“I first moved here with my family in 1979, and my parents joined the [Mendelssohn] Choir back then. There was no youth choir at all, so my sister and I were founding members of the Children’s Festival Chorus, created to perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Mendelssohn,” explains Berlin.
In another happy coincidence, Berlin’s band Rusted Root has also performed on bills with Bob Dylan.
“I think the thing I’m most excited about,” she says, “is hearing the choir in the church, hearing the acoustics of the church that are naturally made to carry and accentuate choral music.”
Berlin is also excited to have Hackman work his magic in the space.
“I’ve got so much admiration for what [Hackman] does as a composer and an artist. By preparing modern-day rock with major composers, I just feel like it’s a cool way to bridge the times,” she says. “He’s creating wormholes between vastly different musical time periods. In doing so, he’s giving recognition to the fact that these composers he’s combining with modern-day artists, they were the rock stars of their day.”
The wormhole created in a choral arrangement of Dylan’s work is also strengthened by the relevance of his lyrics in the current political context.
“The title ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ refers back to the political climate of the ’60s,” says Hackman, “and the current climate now in our country, comparing the two. That particular song acts as a narrator of sorts, and comes back a few times in the work and divides the piece into sections.”
Berlin agrees: “Dylan’s words were so timely then, but they are also timely now. It’ll be cool to see new life breathed into them in a totally different way.”