Early in the coronavirus pandemic, it became clear that indoor choral singing was among the riskiest behaviors one could engage in. So the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, like so many group artistic endeavors, hasn’t had any in-person activities for some 10 months.
But on the heels of its first-ever virtual performance, in December, the 112-year-old choir has found a new way to engage the community at a time when vocalizing together isn’t possible.
Global Choral Traditions hosts experienced practitioners who teach participants about group singing styles from around the world, then gives them the chance to sing along. The four-part, monthly online series begins Wed., Jan. 13, with a program on American gospel. Subsequent sessions cover Appalachian folk (Feb. 3), Bulgarian traditional singing (March 3), and South African choral styles (April 10). The classes are free.
“We thought it would be kind of fun to create events that people with very little investment of time, and no investment of money, could come along and sing with us,” said Matt Mehaffey, the Mendelssohn’s music director. “It’s a way for people to sing, safely and in their own home. It’s a way for them to learn about a style of music that they never have encountered before.”
Global Choral Traditions was organized by the Mendelssohn and the Oratorio Society of Minnesota in collaboration with Village Harmony, a nonprofit that promotes choral singing internationally. Mehaffey said a key to the program is that the four teaching artists are all “culture-bearers” – practitioners who’ve been immersed in their musical style from childhood.
The Jan. 13 session is led by gospel musician and educator Lonnie Norwood. Norwood grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in a Black Lutheran church, and began his piano and voice studies young. He’s long been associated with the Chicago Children’s Choir, where he is director of African Diasporic Music and Studies
Norwood's Global Choral Traditions session will explore the roots of gospel in the antebellum South, many of which ultimately trace to West Africa. “I teach from those traditions, and try to show the connection there,” he said. He’ll focus on traditional numbers like “Lily of the Valley” and “99 And A Half Won’t Do.” (Though he emphasizes that one doesn't have to be a believer to participate.)
The Music of Appalachia session will be taught by Suzannah Park, a native of Asheville, N.C., who comes from three generations of traditional music. Bulgarian Folk Singing is taught by award-winning singer Elitsa Stoyneva Krastev. And “Traditional South African Music” is led by Bongani Magatyana, a singer, music director, composer and producer from Gugulethu Township, South Africa.
Participants need not have singing experience. The sessions are taught with everyone but the instructor on mute, even for the concluding sing-along, said Mehaffey. After the session, however, participants can opt to record a part for a virtual choral performance of the song the session covered, he said.
While the Mendelssohn is known for its classical work, including decades of collaborations with Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Global Choral Traditions isn’t its first foray into other kinds of music. Witness “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” the group’s successful 2018 program re-interpreting the music of Bob Dylan.
A big difference between classical and folk traditions is the former’s reliance on written scores. Folk choral singing is more typically learned by rote.
“It’s an oral tradition,” said Norwood, speaking of gospel. “So being able to teach it in that way ... really does give people a brand new perspective about it.”
Registration is required. See here for details.