By Brad Hundt
UPPER ST. CLAIR – In 2000, Paul Jacobs was looking for a venue where he could embark on a musical endurance run.
To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, Jacobs was planning on staging an 18-hour marathon of Bach’s complete organ works. He would take a few quick breaks, but otherwise plow through Bach’s preludes, sonatas and fugues from dawn until midnight, and audience members would be able to come and go as they pleased.
Jacobs settled on Westminster Presbyterian Church in Upper St. Clair.
It provided “an ideal setting,” Jacobs said via email. “Westminster has had a long tradition of supporting culture and the arts, and houses an excellent, dynamic Austin organ. The instrument’s beautifully-voiced tonal palette and movable console, so the audience fully sees the organist, were ideal for the 18-hour journey through Bach’s organ works.”
In the 19 years since, Jacobs, a native of Washington, has become one of the premier artists in the American classical world, winning a Grammy, teaching at Juilliard and appearing with orchestras in, among other places, Cleveland, Montreal, Los Angeles and Chicago. Westminster Presbyterian Church has also raised its profile over the last generation, at least on the Pittsburgh-area classical music scene. It has since instituted a music series that brings national and regional soloists and ensembles to the church’s sanctuary or its more intimate chapel.
And Westminster Presbyterian Church is one of a handful of houses of worship in the South Hills that has a concert series.
Westminster launched its series almost 10 years ago.
“I think we just felt like we had a lot to offer. It’s a wonderful way to provide outreach to the community,” according to Sara Kyle, a musicologist and longtime volunteer with the series.
Some of the artists that have appeared at the church over the years include the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, the trio Chatham Baroque, Pittsburgh Camerata, the South Hills Chorale and the organist Isabelle Demers. The church provides the space free of charge, and admission prices vary on the concerts – some are free, while some artists levy an admission charge to help cover their costs. Turnout varies, Kyle explained, with a marquee name like Jacobs filling the sanctuary. The acoustics in the sanctuary, and in the nearby Galbreath Chapel, have won plaudits from the artists who have performed there.
Churches are a natural setting for classical music, Kyle said, because the line between classical and sacred music is frequently blurry. There is, however, no proselytizing when visitors come for either the concerts or the weekly farmer’s market that happens in Westminster’s south parking lot.
“It’s a gift to the community,” Kyle said. “We want to be a center for the arts in the South Hills. We want you to feel welcome.”
Westminster’s 2019-20 season gets under way Sept. 20 with an appearance by Chatham Baroque, joined by the Four Nations Ensemble, a group based in Hudson, N.Y., that uses period instruments. It will be followed Sept. 28 with a concert by Pittsburgh Camerata, setting the poetry of Walt Whitman to music. Among the eight concerts scheduled so far is a return visit by Jacobs March 15.
Other churches in the South Hills that host music series include St. Bernard Church in Mt. Lebanon and Our Lady of Grace Church in Scott Township. St. Bernard has hosted concerts since the 1960s, according to Chaz Bowers, the director of music at St. Bernard. This year, it is starting a joint series with Our Lady of Grace, with five events happening at each church.
Bowers said St. Bernard is the perfect spot “to stir the heart, mind and soul,” thanks to its Romanesque design, murals, acoustics he describes as “excellent” and its pipe organ, which was installed in 1961.
The concerts at both churches are free, and those who attend “come from all walks of life and various religious and economic backgrounds,” Bowers said.
“Music, in its various forms, is one of the things that we all share in common,” he said. “It is always exciting to see new and old faces come through our doors to hear excellent music.”
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, also in Mt. Lebanon, hosts a music series. It originally started 11 years ago as a fundraising event for the church’s music ministry, according to Douglas Starr, the church’s director of music and arts. The church typically schedules 10 concerts between September and June, with an organ recital anchoring the series.
Westminster Presbyterian Church, St. Bernard, St. Paul’s and Our Lady of Grace still have active congregations, but the 254-year-old Old St. Luke’s Church, just outside Carnegie in Scott Township, now exists as a historical site and a venue for weddings and other special events.
In 2014, the church decided to expand its offerings to include chamber music concerts that now happen eight times per season. The 2019-20 series is set to kick off Sept. 15. All the concerts are free, and attendance can vary, according to Larry Weiss, vice president of the board at Old St. Luke’s. They can draw as few as 12 people, or as many as 120. No matter the size of the audience, though, “the acoustics are pristine in here,” Weiss said.
“There aren’t a lot of venues for chamber music in the South Hills,” Weiss said.
He also observed taking in a concert in the historic environs of Old St. Luke’s carries an added bonus: you’re hearing music in a building that sprang up while the likes of Haydn and Mozart still walked the earth.
“That’s what people were listening to when they went to this church,” Weiss said. “That was their contemporary music.”