MORGANTOWN — The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh is making its first trip down to Morgantown to commemorate Black History Month with “Let My People Go: A Spiritual Journey Along the Underground Railroad.”
The performance, set for 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the WVU Creative Arts Center, interweaves spirituals and a historically based script that gives context to the music.
“It’s about 70 percent music, 30 percent spoken word,” said MCP Music Director Matthew Mehaffey. “Two actors (Hope Anthony and Charles E. Timbers) speak in between the songs. Some of the scenes are more narrative, talking about the spirituals, and some of them are more dramatic, where the actors are interacting with each other.”
The pair will lead the audience along the Underground Railroad and illuminate the secret codes used by those who traversed the Railroad, explaining the importance of the era’s songs.
The choir of 125 will also be joined by four soloists — Elisabeth Stevens, soprano; Demareus Cooper, mezzo-soprano; Donovan Elliott-Smith, tenor; and Gregg Baker, bass-baritone — for the 75-minute work composed by award-winning, American composer Donald McCullough.
Opening the show will be the WVU Chamber Singers, who will perform music by African American composers and will join the Mendelssohn Choir for the final movement of “Let My People Go.”
Mehaffey said the idea to bring the show to Morgantown is part of a larger mission for MCP to reach a wider audience.
“When I came on a couple of years ago, it was with the intent to help [the choir] find a new voice and a direction of its own,” he said.
For more than 90 years of its 110-year history, the Mendelssohn Choir has been a choral partner of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Now, in addition to the classical music fans at the symphony performances are accustomed to, the choir has added more contemporary pieces, such as “Let My People Go” to its repertoire.
The group has also made an effort to bring music to its audience, performing less in downtown Pittsburgh and more in the city’s network of neighborhoods.
“People don’t want to drive downtown and pay for parking,” Mehaffey said. “So in the last three years, we’ve come to them and added new members of the family who want to come to concerts near them. A show in Morgantown is another step in that direction. In coming years, if this goes well, we’d like to bring another production back.”
And audience members Sunday will have a chance to see a show that’s already proved popular in the choir’s hometown.
“We sold out the Pittsburgh show last Friday,” Mehaffey said.
MCP has been a staple in the city’s community for more than a century, made up of singers from diverse backgrounds and professions.
“This is one of the top choirs in the country,” Mehaffey said. “They have day jobs but participate because of their love of the music and the desire to do that at the highest levels. These are highly trained individuals, many with former or current careers in music. … It’s truly a joy to work with them.”
Mehaffey shares the passion of the singers he conducts. Like them, being the choir’s music director isn’t his only job.
The Pittsburgh native is now based in Minneapolis and is an associate professor of music at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in conducting and music literature, and is the 2015 recipient of the Arthur “Red” Motley Exemplary Teaching Award. He also conducts the University Singers and Men’s Chorus and serves as music director of The Oratorio Society of Minnesota.
As an educator, he said, “I’m dealing with people much more at the beginning of their musical path. With conducting, I’m working with professionals with more experience.”
In fact, he said, the crowd this weekend will see world-class performers taking on a significant work.
“There isn’t a lot of scenery or props, but I don’t think people are going to miss that. …. It’s one of those things, a lot of music sounds better on a recording, but so many people singing together, it’s really powerful. It’s something you don’t get from headphones or a speaker system. And combined with the story and the great quality of the African American spirituals, it’s going to be a memorable day.”