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Pittsburgh's Mendelssohn Choir offers free concerts for the shortest days of the year

Even people who claim they “love the holidays” are probably at least agnostic about the scarcity of daylight this time of year.

Yet for millennia, humans across cultures and around the world have chosen just these dimly illumined weeks for some of their biggest annual celebrations.

It’s a paradox the Grammy-nominated Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh honors with a series of six free concerts called “The Promise of Light.” The shows are at five area churches from Cranberry to the Hill District, over two weekends starting Fri., Dec. 10.

The hour-long program is an eclectic mix of music and poetry about winter, the solstice, and the holidays. The choir of up to 120 voices will perform music by artists as diverse as Dolly Parton and lauded choral composers Randall Thompson and Ēriks Ešenvalds. The poetry includes verse by the likes of Robert Frost, Margaret Atwood, and Mary Oliver.

“Humankind can be thought to come together as one here, in that, why is it that people decided during the darkest time of the year, when it’s the most depressing, that there needed to be a celebration?” asks Mendelssohn's artistic director Matthew Mehaffey.

The show will be the first for the choir since the pandemic began. It also comes on the heels of last month’s announcement that the Mendelssohn’s collaboration with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on a recorded performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 earned a Grammy nomination for Best Orchestral Performance.

“The Promise of Light” will give the group a chance to show its range. It opens with Ešenvalds’ “Stars” and the Fleet Foxes song “White Winter Hymnal.” But the choir also essays everything from a Renaissance madrigal and Thompson’s musical setting of Frost’s iconic “Stopping By the Woods on A Snowy Evening” to Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” and Dar Williams’ alt-holiday classic “The Christians and the Pagans.” There’s even a rendition of “Sleigh Ride.”

“We’re hoping that these concerts at this time of year provide people with some of that hope and feeling of being a part of all humanity that are looking for that light as well,” says Mehaffey.

The first two concerts are Fri., Dec. 10, and Sat., Dec. 11, at Westminster Presbyterian Church, in Upper St. Clair. The Dec. 11 matinee is also a sensory-friendly performance. A Dec. 11 evening performance follows at St. Killian Catholic Church, in Cranberry. The weekend concludes with a Sun., Dec. 12, matinee at Ebenezer Baptist Church, in the Hill District.

The Dec. 17 show is at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, in Shadyside, with a Dec. 18 matinee at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Downtown.

All the shows are free but registration is requested via the group’s web site. All patrons will be required to show proof of vaccination and to wear facemasks during the program.

More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: