Inspired by a 12-city tour of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus in 1981, an operating committee convened in Pittsburgh to form a local chorus. Two weeks later, the first rehearsal took place at Zach’s Fourth Avenue Bar under the direction of Stan Bennett (listed in concert programs as “Stan of MCC” for his entire tenure).
The debut concert for the PGC featured 32 singers — men and women.
As some members felt unsafe being associated with an organization that used “gay” in its name, the choir voted on a name change. “Renaissance City” refers to Pittsburgh (one of dozens of cities bestowed the moniker), a nickname that calls back to an era of revitalization following World War II as well as expansion in the 1980s. The Renaissance City Winds was created with a similar inspiration.
The annual holiday concert would prove to be the standout performance for RCC each year, demonstrating its largest successes, both financially and artistically.
In 1983, GALA Choruses Inc. — the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses — formed to serve the rapidly growing movement of LGBTQ choruses in North America. At the time RCC joined, GALA represented about 50 choirs in the United States and Canada; it now serves at least 190 around the world.
Tom Caruso, in his first concert as the second artistic director of the RCC, introduced a sing-along of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” The choir has featured this tradition at every holiday concert since.
Though some disagree about the order of the gifts, RCC endorses the following:
The last concert to feature soprano and alto voices — until the 10th anniversary concert in 1995 — was the holiday concert at the end of 1988.
A majority of the choruses represented by GALA have specifically been identified as a “Gay Men’s Chorus,” including some of the largest choruses such as those in New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. To this day, a significant number of such choruses still exclude soprano and alto voices from their rosters.
Every four years, GALA holds a festival inviting all of its member choruses to participate in workshops and showcases. While a small ensemble from RCC named “Top Shelf” attended the 1988 leadership conference, the full choir would not attend until the 1992 festival in Denver, Colorado, under the RCC’s third director, Larry Marietta.
For the 10th anniversary concert, performed in the Benedum Center, the RCC invited the North Coast Gay Men’s Chorus, Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus, and Rochester Gay Men’s Chorus to join the program.
As part of the anniversary celebration, the organization opened once again to soprano and alto voices with the formation of the Renaissance City Women’s Choir, under the direction of Susan Haugh. The RCWC would rehearse and sometimes perform separately from the Renaissance City Men’s Choir, under different directors. Both choirs existed under the larger organization’s umbrella as the Renaissance City Choirs, nomenclature that would persist until 2013.
The holiday concert in 1995 featured the largest group in the history of the choir, with 142 singers across the men’s and women’s choirs. It was the last concert directed by Larry Marietta.
During most of RCC’s early years, the choirs had been rehearsing at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Shadyside. In 1996, the choir moved to East Liberty Presbyterian Church, where it remains to this day. ELPC has established itself as a highly open church, even adjusting the language at its services to be more inclusive. The church has designated the RCC “Artists in Residence,” and proudly invites the group to perform at its yearly “Full Inclusion Sunday” in November.
Following significant financial and morale setbacks, the RCC introduced a cabaret in the spring of 1998 to serve as a fundraiser for the group. The cabaret has since become a regular tradition for the RCC, growing from an informal performance with a handful of singers to a full-fledged third concert each season in late winter.
In the spring of 1996, Susan Haugh — artistic director of the women’s choir — took over for Larry Marietta as an interim director. She would be succeeded by Don Megahan, who was quickly let go in summer 1997 due to financial difficulties. Fortunately, singer Michael Hellman volunteered to lead rehearsals to keep the men’s choir from folding.
In the summer of 1998, the RCMC hired Darlene Durrwachter Rushing to serve as artistic director. She worked with Susan Haugh and a new board of directors — including non-singing members — to revitalize the organization.
The board, together with singers and volunteers, gathered for a retreat in 1999 to develop a strategic plan for the RCC. One significant outcome of the retreat was the adoption of the tagline “Gays and Lesbians Creating Change Through the Power of Music.”
The women’s choir recorded Sing Out Women in the summer of 1999 as the choir’s first commercial recording. Among the 14 songs on the album were “On Children” and “Everything Possible,” two songs the choir has performed at many of its concerts.
RCWC premiered artistic director Susan Haugh’s I Look Like a Girl and RCMC performed Oliver Button is a Sissy — both inspired by children’s books with the same titles — for the spring 2002 season. These songs would form the centerpiece of a campaign by the RCC to combat bullying in schools, and were performed as part of a weekday matinee that was aimed toward schoolchildren and families — the only such performance to date of one of the RCC’s major concerts.
The first commercial CD from the men’s choir was a recording of the 2003 holiday concert, entitled Holiday Jewels.
One of the most creative concerts the RCC has performed was the Who’s Who game show format in the spring of 2004. The concert involved significant writing support from choir members and featured Lynne Cullen as emcee and WQED’s Jim Cunningham as the announcer.
Under the direction of interim artistic director Kris Rust, the RCC traveled to Quebec to participate in the GALA festival. In honor of the choir’s upcoming 20th anniversary, the RCC commissioned James Mulholland to produce Mementos of Millay, based on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, which premiered at the festival.
The choir would later introduce the completed piece at the holiday concert of 2005 under the direction of a new artistic director for the men’s choir, Bill Adams.
In recognition of the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the men’s choir performed at the Shanksville, Pennsylvania Flight 93 National Memorial. On Sept. 11, 2001, Mark Bingham, a gay man, was one of the passenger leaders who attempted to take control of United Airlines Flight 93, causing the plane to crash in the small town of Shanksville and miss its likely target in Washington, D.C. The choir performed a special arrangement of Melissa Etheridge’s Tuesday Morning, written in his honor.
Susan Haugh ended her 10-year role as the first director of the RCWC in the spring of 2005. Bill Adams, then director of the men’s choir, filled in for the fall season of 2005, and accompanist Jack Kurutz served as interim director in spring 2006.
Andres Cladera was hired in the fall of 2006 as the official artistic director of the women’s choir. When Bill Adams left the RCMC in spring 2007, Andres took over direction of the men’s choir as well, and was formally hired to serve as artistic director for both groups in fall 2008. A single artistic director would remain the norm for the remainder of the RCC’s history.
For the holiday concert of 2009, director Andres Cladera moved the performance from its traditional home in the East Liberty Presbyterian Church sanctuary to Carnegie Music Hall, part of the Carnegie Museums complex in Oakland. During his time with the RCC, Andres would introduce the choir to several venues throughout the city, including the auditorium of Ellis School, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, and Pittsburgh Opera in the Strip District.
This holiday concert would produce the choir’s third commercial CD, The 25th Anniversary Holiday Concert. The most significant feature was the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra, a community orchestra that joined the choir for portions of Saint-Saens’ Christmas Oratorio and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” This partnership would continue every year from that point on — the RCC joins the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra on a large orchestral suite for its holiday concert, and the orchestra performs the piece with the choir at the RCC’s holiday concert.
In September 2010, columnist Dan Savage created the It Gets Better project in an effort to provide hope for LGBT youth facing harassment. RCC proudly joined the project with a video featuring a rehearsal recording of In This Moment and messages from choir members about their own experiences.
After Andres Cladera left the RCC following the 2011 holiday concert, Dr. Richard Teaster served as interim director for the choirs in spring 2012, bringing the choir to its sixth GALA festival in Denver (the third interim director to travel with the RCC to GALA).
For the holiday concert in 2012, the choir brought on Dr. Jeffry Blake Johnson as artistic director. Jeffry was no stranger to the RCC, having served as organist for the 1989 concert in his role as Associate Director of Music for the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. Jeffry would bring the choir back to the ELPC for its 2013 holiday concert, and all subsequent major concerts since.
One of the RCC’s proudest moments was being invited to perform at the inauguration of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. The choir was one of three performance groups at the inauguration and the sole representative from western Pennsylvania.
Compiled by Blaine Knupp; edited by Douglas McIntyre.
Tenor/Bass (Men’s Choir)
Stan Bennett (1985–1987)
Tom Caruso (1987–1989)
Larry Marietta (1989–1995)
Susan Haugh (1996 Interim)
Don Megahan (1996–1997)
Michael Hellman (1998 Interim)
Darlene Durrwachter Rushing (1998–2004)
Kris Rust (2004 Interim)
Bill Adams (2004–2007)
Andres Cladera (2007–2008 Interim)
Soprano/Alto (Women’s Choir)
Susan Haugh (1995–2005)
Bill Adams (2005 Interim)
Jack Kurutz (2006 Interim)
Andres Cladera (2006–2008)
Andres Cladera (2008–2011)
Richard Teaster (2012 Interim)
Jeffry Blake Johnson (2012–2019)
S.C. Toe (2019–2021)