As Ernest Nelson drove back to his home in Denbo after his audition for Pittsburgh’s prestigious Mendelssohn Choir this past August, he felt uncertain of his fate.
“I called my partner of 37 years, Doug Kovach, on the way home and he wanted to know how it went. I said, ‘I think I tanked.’ We’ll have to wait and see,” said Nelson.
Formed in 1908, The Mendelssohn Choir, currently under the direction of Betsy Burleigh and choir manager Mary Colleen Seip, is the oldest continuously performing arts organization in Pittsburgh, and the primary vocal accompaniment for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It is comprised of a paid professional core of 20 singers and 100 volunteer singers. Nelson auditioned as a volunteer.
Though he had prepared for weeks before the audition, working with his long-time vocal coach, the experience was intimidating.
“I haven’t done any solo singing or auditioning of any kind for many years,” said Nelson.
For the audition, Nelson performed a number his vocal coach had chosen to highlight his strengths—“Caro Mio Ben,” an arietta, or small Italian aria—and he was held to a three-minute time limit.
After his performance, Nelson, a baritone, was asked to sing scales to show his range, as high and low as he could go. That part presented no trouble for Nelson, as he is “blessed with a wide range,” and can go slightly higher in the upper register for a baritone.
Then came the most difficult part: an exercise called “sight reading.”
“You have no idea what the song will be,” said Nelson. “They ask you to pick up the book on the piano, open it to the page marked, give you the measure to start with and you sing your part of a four-part harmony.”
His own harshest critic, Nelson remained positive, but after the audition, he didn’t know what to expect. And he certainly didn’t expect the email that would arrive three days later to notify him of his acceptance.
“I was ecstatic. I really was. It just really puts a lot of meaning to my years of being involved in music, and then studying vocal studies privately. It validates all the effort and time and money,” said Nelson.
Nelson’s audition for the Mendelssohn Choir was a long time coming.
He started out as a member of the youth choir at his church, and from there sang for high school musicals and played the slide trombone in the marching, stage and jazz bands at Charleroi High School.
In 1974, Nelson toured Europe with an organization comprised of high school and college vocalists and musicians.
“We toured for three weeks, to five countries and numerous concerts. It was an experience of a lifetime. We even cut an album,” said Nelson.
Nelson also had a several-year stint as a member of the Mon Valley Barbershop Chorus, a group that competed in district and regional competitions against huge choruses of 150 members or more, and sometimes placed above them.
“Small and mighty were we,” said Nelson.
Later, after devoting all of his time securing the floral business he shares with Kovach, Pretty Petals Floral and Gift Shop in Brownsville, Nelson joined the Bentworth Ministerial Community Choir and rekindled his love of singing in public.
“I did break away from [singing] for a lot of years, but I always had this desire, this feeling like, I need to sing. I need to get into something with this,” said Nelson.
After joining the Bentworth Ministerial Choir, Nelson began to consider taking his singing even further. While participating with the Bentworth Choir in an event called The Singing City at Pittsburgh’s Peterson Event Center, Nelson happened to sit next to the father of the writer of one of the symphony pieces performed that evening, and a former member of the Mendelssohn Choir.
After that chance conversation, Nelson knew the Mendelssohn Choir was where he wanted to be, but ran into timing roadblocks—the auditions were often held the same weekend as Mother’s Day, one of his floral shop’s busiest weekends.
Then, in 2013, Nelson learned the Choir would be holding a second set of auditions in August.
“Doug and my staff here at the floral shop were like, you have to audition! You have to do it!” Nelson said.
So he went for it.
“I really have to thank Doug and the staff for their support,” said Nelson.
When he found out he had been accepted to perform in theMendelsohn Choir’s 2013/2014 season, the first person Nelson told was Kovach, his partner.
The morning he found out about his acceptance, Nelson said he“came downstairs and said to Doug, ‘well, I guess I have to buy a new tuxedo!’”
Nelson’s first show with the Mendelssohn Choir was Carmina Burana in October 2013, and then he performed in the Holiday Pops concert series with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
So far, said Nelson, singing with the Mendelssohn Choir has been a dream experience.
“(Singing) is a passion for me, more than a hobby. With the Choir I get to sing with 120 accomplished vocalists and musicians. Some people have extensive musical backgrounds, but everybody is very open and warm and welcoming and supportive,” said Nelson.
Upcoming shows include “The Planets, An HD Odyssey” February 7-9 at Heinz Hall, which is a “musical tour of space” featuring real NASA footage, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and the women of the Mendelssohn Choir. A concert titled “Music for the Spirit” at East Liberty Presbyterian Church on February 13 will feature both the Mendelssohn Choir and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Now, Nelson is focusing on managing his time effectively, his schedule packed with once-weekly rehearsals, sessions with his voice instructor, shows with the Mendelssohn Choir and managing his business.
“I live by a calendar, basically. Volunteer or not, you’re expected to make rehearsals and performances. You’re really expected to be there,” said Nelson.
Because of the demanding schedule, many choir performers will take extended breaks from the Mendelssohn Choir and re-audition a few years later. In fact, all performers must re-audition every year — even the volunteers.
Despite his tight schedule, Nelson said he plans to re-audition for the foreseeable future.
“I feel very honored to be a part of such a long-standing organization. I’ll keep doing this as long as they’ll have me,” he said.