Ben Kamber
Revelers at last year’s Vodka/Latke bash. Photo Courtesy Ohad Cadji

An evening of dancing and schmoozing, replete with lots of latkes and vodka, await the hundreds of young – and young-at-heart – planning to attend Pittsburgh’s hottest Hanukkah party. Cleverly called Vodka / Latke, this annual “Festival of Lights” celebration hits one of downtown Pittsburgh’s leading venues – SPACE Gallery at 812 Liberty Ave. – this Saturday, Dec. 15, from 8 p.m. to midnight. It’s sponsored by Shalom Pittsburgh, a social group for young Jewish adults.

What do vodka and latkes have to do with Hanukkah?

Latkes are easy. For those unacquainted with these crispy potato delicacies, latkes (or potato pancakes) are a traditional treat enjoyed throughout the eight-day festival. Some people prefer their latkes the conventional way – grated potatoes, onions, salt, eggs, perhaps some matzo meal – fried and served with a dollop of sour cream or a side of applesauce. Others get a whole lot more creative.

Yet, however you take your latkes, one thing’s for certain: by eating them, you are paying homage to the miracle of the story of Hanukkah. As the tale goes, after a series of events in the second century B.C. that left the Jewish temple in Jerusalem defiled, one day’s worth of oil miraculously kept the temple’s menorah lit for eight days – the time needed to spiritually purify the temple. Thus, this miracle of oil is remembered today by eating fried food such as latkes and donuts (called sufganiyot).

As for vodka’s connection to the Hanukkah story, well, let’s just say its ties to the Hanukkah story are a little less agreed upon… (Perhaps it was Judah Maccabee’s spirit of choice during his competitive dreidel spinning sessions).

Either way, Shalom Pittsburgh’s Vodka / Latke 2012 is bound to be blast. Advance tickets are still available for $15 by clicking here. You can also show up at the door and pay $20. Tickets include an open bar (with plenty of vodka), a dance floor (music requests available) and more latkes and other fried Hanukkah treats than your heart (and arteries) could ever desire.

For more information, head over to ShalomPittsburgh.org. Hope to see you there!

In 2011, ImaginePittsburghNow.com 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 Twitter.com/ImaginePgh, or Facebook.com/PittsburghRegion.

ImaginePittsburgh.com
World’s Fair Christmas Trees in the Hall of Architecture

The elaborately decorated Christmas trees at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture are a beloved 51-year-old tradition for the Pittsburgh region. We asked the museum’s Jonathan Gaugler to tell us more about the display and presepio, or Nativity scene. His reflections follow, as well as video from the museum’s David D’Agostino. Thanks to both of them!

“Here at Carnegie Museum of Art, the Carnegie Trees are a decades-old tradition carried out through the dedication of the museum’s Women’s Committee. The trees transform the Hall of Architecture – one of the grandest spaces in the city – into a special, festive display. Every year, the decorations and themes of the trees change, and curators set up the presepio differently (see if you can spot the bird’s nest!), but through it all, the museum’s displays remain a treasured Pittsburgh tradition.

“At the center of the display in the Hall of Architecture is the museum’s magnificent 18th-century Neapolitan presepio – a Nativity scene unlike most others. Just before Thanksgiving weekend, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts Rachel Delphia quietly begins the days-long process of installing the presepio, a scene that spills out beyond the crèche and portrays Italian village life of the 1700s, including merchants, farmers, mendicant beggars and musicians.

“Details in the presepio bear meanings that would be familiar to viewers in Italy during the 1700s but that might escape notice today. Certain styles of dress, for example, would be unmistakably Sicilian. The band of Turkish musicians playing in the streets would herald the arrival of a ship from the east. And, of course, the craftsmanship of the set is exquisite: the painted terracotta figures have sparkling glass eyes, and merchants’ wares are minutely detailed, right down to salami and hand-tied bunches of grapes. Overhead, angels in silk gowns cascade before the massive architectural cast facade of St. Giles, while other narrative elements from the Christmas story – shepherds, magi and fishermen – are interspersed among the everyday lives of the Neapolitans.

“After Thanksgiving weekend, the Hall of Architecture bustles, as Women’s Committee volunteers set to work with the Museum of Art workshop, employing winches, lifts and muscle to install seven 20-foot trees flanking the presepio. As Tara Safar, co-chair of the Carnegie Trees puts it, the committee is ‘a dedicated group of women who are passionate about the arts and raising awareness of Carnegie Museum of Art to promote its tremendous value in our community.’

“This year’s display takes the world’s fairs as inspiration, coinciding with the exhibition Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939 right upstairs in the Heinz Galleries. Each tree features handmade ornaments crafted by organizations from around the city, including colorful “space-race” rocket ships made by Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh volunteers; architectural wonders, including the Eiffel Tower and Space Needle, crafted by Women’s Committee members; and historical hat styles, as presented by the Parks Conservancy. The opening reception to unveil the trees also offers a fundraising opportunity for the committee, which has contributed to significant projects for the museum over the years, most recently a $500,000 pledge toward endowing the position of the Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, now held by Dan Byers. This year’s Nov. 28 reception drew a rousing 500 attendees.

“With the Hall of Architecture fully decorated, the museum settles for the holiday crowds, especially in the week approaching New Year’s Eve. The building pulses with energy as families take in the decorations before scurrying off to enjoy the museum’s world-class art collection and the Museum of Natural History‘s huge, breathtaking display of dinosaur fossils. We hope to see you at the Carnegie Museums this season!”

Associate Curator of Decorative Arts Rachel Delphia on the presepio.

Neapolitan Presepio from Carnegie Museum of Art on Vimeo.

The Women’s Committee’s Melissa Ferrari on the Carnegie Trees

Carnegie Trees from Carnegie Museum of Art on Vimeo.

In 2011, ImaginePittsburghNow.com 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 Twitter.com/ImaginePgh, or Facebook.com/PittsburghRegion.

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, ImaginePittsburghNow.com 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 Twitter.com/ImaginePgh, or Facebook.com/PittsburghRegion.