Bob Dylan once sang “Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm / Come in…I’ll give you shelter from the storm?”
But on June 5, the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh gave the crowd of the Three Rivers Arts Festival a proverbial shelter from the literal storm with a set composed almost entirely of Dylan tunes. It wasn’t the group’s first time playing Dylan’s songs, after the choir performed a sold out show in January at Mr. Smalls theater called “The Times They Are A Changin’: Words and Music of Bob Dylan.”
Led by Music Director, Matthew Mehaffey, the group — made up entirely of volunteers — is best known as the “house choir” for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The show is the brainchild of composer, Steve Hackman, who reimagined a collection of cherished Dylan songs as intricate choir compositions.
The Arts Fest performance included unmistakably Dylan tracks as well as Mendelssohn originals like “We are the stars” and “Dark night of the Soul.” Both are traditional concert hall pieces, but on stage, Mehaffey described the latter as if “Pink Floyd and Yes got together and did a choral piece.”
They continued with the definitive tune, “The Times They Are A Changin,’” setting the scene for what would be a beginner’s guide to Dylan songs. The setlist included essential songs from Dylan’s catalog — each one rekindled into orchestral arrangements.
“The Times They Are A Changin’” swiftly morphed into a quaint spiritual rendition of “Like A Rolling Stone” topped off with soft piano chords that lingered after the song’s end.
“Mr Tambourine Man” and “All Along the Watchtower” followed. It was a surprising choice for Mehaffey to pair these two songs side by side in the set — they couldn’t be any more different in theme. “Tambourine Man” is a hazy tale of an mystical balladeer of the morning, while “Watchtower” is a discussion of an escape from paranoia and possibly reality itself.
Yet, somehow the pairing worked smoothly as the choir sealed the vocal delivery with careful, expert timing — emphasizing some of the song’s most eerie lyrics such as “There are many here among us / Who feel that life is but a joke.”
The interesting choices continued as Mendelssohn broke into “Tangled Up in Blue,” the partly comedic, partly romantic number off Dylan’s 1975 LP “Blood On The Tracks.” Performed in part as an a cappella version,the choir managed to maintain the folksy atmosphere Dylan incorporated on the record.
Mehaffey alluded the next song, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” as a “precursor to rap” for its bulleting speed in vocal execution and verbose rhetoric. For this version, the choir outdid the original tempo by doubling the speed and intensifying the utterance of each verse.
The Mendelssohn Choir — a collected mosaic of volunteer community members — executed a chilling display of deep-rooted appreciation for the work of a generation’s prophet, Bob Dylan.
There was no longer a need to search for shelter from the rain — on the fifth night at Three Rivers Arts Festival, the Mendelssohn Choir provided.