Phil Cynar
Renaissance City Choirs in concert

Uniquely bonded and allied by their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) identity and a love of singing, women and men from the region raise their voices in concert this Sunday evening, Dec. 9, filling Oakland’s Carnegie Music Hall with seasonal song that’s as diverse as the choir itself – joyful, campy, soulful and sassy.

Jeffry Blake Johnson, D.M.A.  is artistic director of the Renaissance City Choirs (RCC), an organization now in its 27th year of providing the region’s LGBT community – as well as a number of choral music-loving heterosexual neighbors – with an outlet for artistic expression and the advancement and appreciation of sexual diversity.

Johnson has been busy – up to the tip of his conductor’s baton – with preparations for the 2012 concert, entitled “Warm by the Fire,” but he shared the following reflections to better acquaint people with the special ensembles composing the RCC and a performance that aims banish winter’s chill with song while affirming, through music, the worth and dignity of sexual minorities.

ImaginePittsburghNow: In brief, how did the Renaissance City Choirs (RCC) get its start?

Jeffry Blake Johnson: In 1985, the Renaissance City Choir/Pittsburgh Gay Chorus Inc. was established as a gay male chorus, and in 1987, it became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. That same year, RCC joined the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) – an international organization with more than 180 LGBT choruses.

To celebrate the choir’s 10th anniversary, RCC hosted a 10th anniversary concert at the Benedum Center and invited nearby GALA choruses – Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus, North Coast Men’s Chorus and Rochester Gay Men’s Chorus – to perform. It was also the debut performance for the Renaissance City Women’s Choir formed in January 1995.

IPN:  What does the RCC uniquely bring to the LGBT community in the Pittsburgh area, as well as to the community at large?  What does this special choir have the power to do with its music – both within the group and outside in the community?

RCC Artistic Director Jeffry Blake Johnson

JBJ: The RCC is a microcosm of American society: LGBT men and women living alongside our openly heterosexual brothers and sisters. We work for greater understanding between people of different backgrounds and identities, as well as the advancement of equality. And more simply, we work to create beautiful art and moments of music that are shared with each other and with our audiences. As a true rainbow community we work on living and cooperating in peace and respect, and we try to share those values within our own LGBT community and the wider community. As an organization, we seek to build bridges within our community and with the community at large.

IPN:  How did you land your job as artistic director of the RCC?  As a transplant to Pittsburgh what has struck a chord (pardon the pun) with you?

JBJ: Since I began living in Pittsburgh in 1996 and working at East Liberty Presbyterian Church (2000 – 2007), which is the home base of RCC, I knew about the choirs and had heard them in many concerts through the years. A friend of mine, who has friends in the choirs, mentioned that she thought the position was open and referred me to the choirs’ website where I learned all about the job opening. I went through a series of interviews with a search committee and an audition in a choir rehearsal. RCC is truly a family, and the people in the choirs very much love each other. That wonderful bond was apparent to me from the beginning. Individually, the singers are funny, wise, silly, talented and vivacious, and they bring all of those qualities to their music-making and advocacy.

Pittsburgh’s amazing diversity of communities throughout the city, and of course, it’s beautiful rolling hills, rivers and bridges struck a chord with me.

IPN:  What one thing, in your opinion, that would improve Pittsburgh for its LGBT residents?

JBJ: Marriage equality would be one of the most meaningful things for the LGBT community in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. We need this, not only for those of us who wish to be married, but as a symbol of respect to demonstrate that we are not second-class citizens in our society. There are 1,138 benefits, rights and protections provided on the basis of marital status in federal law. Until we have full marriage equality, we will be paid less, and our families will be treated as inferior in comparison with our heterosexual brothers and sisters.

IPN:  Silly question, but is everyone in the choir a bona fide LGBT individual? If not, tell us about what’s likely to be the RCC’s “one percent.”

JBJ: There are approximately 65 plus members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and allies singing with the Renaissance City Choirs. Although no one has been polled specifically, we do have a number of openly heterosexual folk singing with us. And, we love that!

IPN:  If a reader has time for just one seasonal concert, why should it yours?

JBJ: “Warm by the Fire” will provide a multi-faceted experience. Our audience will hear beautiful classic holiday music, as well as a sassy new composition from composer Jake Heggie (composer of the opera Dead Man Walking) and lyricist Mark Campbell (lyricist for the opera Silent Night, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music). We’ll sing holiday tunes with the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra and enjoy the performance of the LGBTA youth performance troupe Dreams of Hope. And, for many people, one of the most anticipated traditions of the holiday season will be taking part in our annual singing of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” replete with rowdiness. If you have not experienced “The Twelve Days” with the RCC, you don’t know what fun you’re missing.

Watch a preview video of the 2012 RCC holiday concert here.


The “Warm by the Fire” concert begins at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9 at Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave. in Oakland (15213). Click here for more information or to purchase tickets (general admission: $25 advance,  $30 at door; premius seats: $50; students: $10.)

Pittsburgh’s got a happening LGBT community. Click here to read more about it and some of its people.

In 2011, highlighted the sustainability of some of Pittsburgh’s most cherished holiday traditions. This year we’re calling attention to a few of our favorite seasonal things, with a bit of a twist toward greater diversity or international flair. Send your suggestions to us at, or

Bonnie Pfister

Christmas may be over (though Epiphany comes this weekend, as does Eastern Orthodox Christmas for those on the Julian calendar) but the sustainable outings featured in’s Five Golden Things series continue into January and beyond.

The 2011 Winter Flower Show at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens continues through Sunday, Jan. 8, but of course Phipps is worth a visit at any time of year — as a place of verdant beauty but also as a world leader in sustainability.

Seasonal decorations remain up through Saturday, Jan. 14 at the Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, which are a public tribute to the region’s immigrant past — and its future — year round.

And of course, Venture Outdoors offers outings through our region’s singular topography in every season, from cross-country skiing and high-octane hikes to strolls and beer-tastings through historic neighborhoods for people (and sometimes pets and/or children).

Five Golden Things highlights winter holiday outings that underscore the Pittsburgh region’s commitment to sustainability in many forms, including the use of wind power for some of the city’s most traditional and beloved seasonal icons. Read the entire series here. And if you haven’t already done so, please sign up for automatic blog updates via RSS feed to your email account, at or

Here’s to a healthy, sustainable 2012 — for our region and us, every one.

Suzi Pegg

The University of Pittsburgh’s Nationality Rooms in the Cathedral of Learning will be open through Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, although the Cathedral is closed on Dec. 24-26 and on Jan. 1, 2016. For up-to-date information on hours of operation and tours, call 412-624-6000 or visit

As someone in the business of bringing people from far and wide to Pittsburgh, I find The Nationality Rooms in the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning to be among the region’s truly unique places to share with visitors. At Christmastime they are especially beautiful, festooned with the colorful trappings of winter holidays that are observed by cultures and religions around the globe. (More about that – and special holiday tours — below).

To me, the Nationality Rooms underscore the ultimate sustainable resource: people. Pittsburgh was built into an industrial powerhouse because of the hard work and innovative thinking of native-born men and women, and those who came from afar to make a better life here. European immigrants – particularly from Eastern Europe – were among those powered the steel boom beginning in the mid-19th century, while African-Americans who moved north during the Great Migration of the 20th century helped keep steel and other regional industries humming.

Immigration to the United States still comes from Europe, but we are increasingly seeing newcomers from such places as China, India and Latin America, with some of the highest skilled immigrants choosing Pittsburgh. “Old Europe” is still important when it comes to seeking new trade and investment for our region. I will be part of a delegation led by Governor Tom Corbett to France and Germany in 2012, which together are the top source of foreign direct investment in Pennsylvania. (My research colleagues here at the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance calculate that German-based firms are the largest foreign employer in our 10-county region, with 84 firm providing jobs to an estimated 10,585 people. Thirty-one French-based companies employ an estimated 3,475 people.)

But you don’t have to go to France or Germany – or anywhere – to take in the visual flavor of dozens and countries and cultures. The Nationality Rooms here in Oakland are actual working classrooms furnished in the style of their respective countries – down to switch plates, door handles, hinges and even wastebaskets.

The concept was developed by Pitt Chancellor John Bowman in the late 1920s as a way to emotionally and financially invest the community in the cathedral’s construction amid what would soon become quite trying economic times. The region’s ethnic communities were invited to design the rooms in styles popular in their home countries around 1787, the year the university was founded. Each group was responsible for its own fundraising, acquisition of materials, and labor costs, with Pitt providing upkeep upon completion.

Eastern European cultures are especially well-represented among the rooms, as are those of China, Japan, Syria-Lebanon and Armenia. The African heritage room reflects an Asante temple courtyard from Ghana, and Yoruban carvings depict such ancient kingdoms as Egypt, Ethiopia, Congo and Zimbabwe. Nine additional nationality room committees have made requests, with Swiss and Turkish rooms planned to open in 2012.

Around Christmastime, the 27 rooms are decked in seasonal finery, and ethnic dance performances are featured early in December. The decorations remain up through Jan. 14 (although the building is closed Dec. 24-26, and on Jan. 1). From Dec. 27-31, 90-minute guided tours are offered every half-hour from 9 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. (tickets cost $3 for adults; $1 for kids). If you can’t make it during the holiday, narrated-tape tours are available on weekends throughout the years. For more information – or to take a virtual online tour of the rooms – check out  the website of the Nationality Rooms.

Ben Kamber

FIVE GOLDEN THINGS: Fourth of five posts on holiday outings that underscore the Pittsburgh region’s commitment to sustainability in many forms.

Seasonal eye candy is plentiful in Pittsburgh. But for an experience that wows and is “greener” than even the reds and greens that traditionally dress this time of year, pay a visit to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens for the 2011 Winter Flower Show. Themed “The Nutcracker:  A Fresh Arrangement,” this extravaganza of flora delivers a fresh and exhilarating experience — not just for the freshness of the flora but for the global thought leadership it’s providing in green building technologies. More on that below.

The Phipps’ Winter Flower Show has been a cherished tradition for many throughout the region, but my first encounter with this wonderful wintertime display occurred only recently.

When I entered the stately Palm Court room, the first of many dazzling spaces within the conservatory, I was struck by two things.  First, a serenity filled the air (which itself seemed especially fresh because of a plethora of healthy plant life). If you need a reprieve from the busy bustle of the season – or from the dreary weather, even post-holiday (the winter show is up until Jan. 8)  – this is the place to catch your breath.

The second thing I remarked upon was the attention to detail.  Each plant, flower and decoration seems to be in its perfect place.  The Palm Court is reminiscent of a picture-perfect 19th-century mansion, with a towering evergreen decked in Victorian-style ornaments as its focal point. Prints from this bygone era line the walls, showcased in frames created from all sorts of succulents.

Nodding to the Nutcracker ballet theme is another display, “the land of sweets.”  There, a whimsical gingerbread house and sugar-plum fairies festooned in flowers appear amid water features and other fun fancies.  And not to be missed – no matter what your age (although kids seem especially drawn to it) – is the South Conservatory’s amazing model railroad, which pays homage to Pittsburgh with several of its miniature buildings and landscapes.

Even more impressive is the fact that the conservatory all year-round is a world leader in sustainable building practices. Its iconic glass greenhouse may harken back to the Victorian era, but Phipps is firmly of the 21st century with its commitment to sustainability and intelligent building technologies. It will unveil its “greenest” building to date in the spring of 2012.

Called the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, the building will not only be Phipps’ most environmentally friendly building, but it will be one of the most sustainable buildings in the world.  Through a mix of cutting-edge energy and water efficient technologies, this 24,000- square-foot education, research and administrative facility will be net-zero in both energy and water usage. This means that the building’s utilities will be completely offset by its ability to conserve and treat water, as well as generate and conserve energy resources.

What this all adds up to is a green building first, with Phipps primed for a trifecta of top sustainable certifications: LEED Platinum certification, the Living Building Challenge, and SITES (“the LEED of landscapes”). All of this underscores the global leadership and commitment to sustainability by Phipps and the Pittsburgh region.

To learn more about Phipps’ green commitment and its Center for Sustainable Landscapes, check out the video below featuring Executive Director Richard Piacentini. And be sure to make your way over to the spectacular Winter Flower show, on display through Jan. 8.  The perfect cure for the post-holiday blues is under one glass roof.

Jim Futrell

While there are certainly several resources for job growth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Employment Statistics, the Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area recorded its best October employment on record at 1,161,300. Employment grew 1.2 percent from September 2011 and 1.9 percent from October 2010. (You can read more about it on the website of Pittsburgh TODAY which compares the Pittsburgh region to similar, benchmark cities that include Philadelphia, Cleveland, Denver and Charlotte.)

So what was driving this job growth? One would suspect this to be part of seasonal trends, and while it is true that employment almost always gets a September to October bump around 5,000, this year’s jump was well over 13,000. Trade, transportation, and utilities, and government are two industries that are more significantly impacted by seasonal gains and losses.

Traditional strong-growing industries such as financial activities and professional and business services experienced minimal ups and downs over the past few quarters. Education and health services is a key industry, which has been gradually increasing over the past several months to its current peak of 251,000 employees, a record high.

Often the most interesting data can be found deeper within certain industries. Management of companies and enterprises (a sub-sector of professional and business services) saw its employment rise to 35,900 in October. This is not just the best October for this sub-sector, but the highest employment ever recorded in this industry. This again reinforces several previous analyses by the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance on the importance of Pittsburgh as headquarters hub.

Colleges, universities, and professional schools, a sub-sector of the education and health care industry, saw its employment rise to 45,400, a record high. While some of this can be attributed to increased hiring for the school year, it’s still 10 percent higher than October 2010, and 21 percent higher than this time just five years ago. Pittsburgh’s college and universities are key contributors to this record-breaking October.

Before readers get too excited, remember, the labor force also increased in October, so this will not necessarily translate directly to a major reduction in the regional unemployment rate. According to the Pennsylvania Center for Workforce Information and Analysis, October’s unemployment rate did drop to 7.0 percent, well below the state rate (8.1 percent) and national rate (9.0 percent). The region is moving in the right direction, fueled by a wide range of industries.