Review: Choral variations on a theme, capped by a world premiere
By George Yeh
Climate change exerts its influence over us all in ways great and small. One recent local manifestation was unseasonably warm weather this past Sunday, which may have contributed to a somewhat sparse crowd that afternoon for the fourth concert of the current season of the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus, at Third Baptist Church in Grand Center. After all, why be indoors on a mid-February sunny afternoon with mild temperatures, when there’s a rare winter chance to enjoy the great outdoors? Also perhaps partly because of the exceptionally mild February weather, the church’s HVAC system was turned off, to make the silences in the space’s excellent acoustic register more notably. Even without the HVAC, the space was quite warm. Further concert competition was occurring just 430 feet up Grand Boulevard, c/o the Saint Louis Symphony, Stéphane Denève, and violinist Tessa Lark. For those who chose this SLCC concert over the great outdoors or Powell Hall, their reward was a splendid concert of 10 choral works spanning the 16th to the 21st centuries, including the second world premiere of the SLCC’s current season, with its composer in attendance.
The running motif of this concert, titled “From Depth to Height”, derives from Psalm 130, with its celebrated opening phrase (in Latin) “De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine”, rendered in English in the King James Version as “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, o Lord”. Psalm 130 and various versions of this text featured in the great majority of the afternoon’s selections. Philip Barnes, the SLCC’s artistic director, began the concert with a fascinating rarity by a composer normally associated with opera, Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787), his setting in Latin of 3 verses from Psalm 130, “De Profundis”. The SLCC last performed this work 27 seasons ago, its only other performance of the work. Mr. Barnes then proceeded to two English settings of Psalm 150 in subtly different English texts, with subtly different titles, in their first SLCC performances: a 16th-century composition by Thomas Tallis (or possibly William Parsons, depending on which manuscript you consult) titled “Out From The Deep”, and a work from several centuries later, “Out Of The Deep” by Charles Wood (1866-1926).
With the mood appropriately set by the opening selections, the next work was a German-language Psalm 150 setting by Felix Mendelssohn, “Aus Tiefer Not”. Here, Mr. Barnes ceded the rostrum to one of the SLCC’s two associate conductors, Orin Johnson. For listeners familiar with the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, this Mendelssohn work is very much in Bach’s spirit and style, particularly in its opening and closing moments. The work is quite extended, and Mr. Johnson directed the SLCC very well. The one blip in the program booklet was that the second and third stanzas were transposed, compared to their sung order.
Mr. Barnes returned to conduct the program’s first American selection, in its first-ever SLCC performance, “From Lowest Depths of Woe” by William Billings (1746-1800), in a different rendering of Psalm 130, dating from 1696, from the English poets Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate. Billings cleverly depicted “going into the depths” by starting with the highest female voices, and gradually adding lower voices through the 5 stanzas. The first half closed with a past SLCC commission by the Swiss composer Carl Rütti (born 1949), his own setting of “Aus tiefer not”, with 5 stanzas set rather than the 4 in the earlier Mendelssohn, and with very slight variations in the German text from the Mendelssohn, as well as some quirky phrasing and rhythms. This was the concert’s first selection to treat the idea of “depth” quite literally at the outset, by starting with very low bass tones. The work also ended “in the depths”, with deep bass tones having the last word. The SLCC premiered this Rütti work back in 2007 (which this writer missed), so it was good for this work to get a fresh airing.
The concert’s other American work began the second half, “Out Of The Deep” by Robert H. Young (1923-2011), an English-language setting of the first line from Psalm 130, but then veering into the main text selected from Psalm 139, which begins “Lord, thou has searched me out and known me”, and concluding with text by Isaac Watt that begins “O God, our help in ages past”. The 4th work on the program to receive its first SLCC performance, it is a very mellifluous and easy-on-the-ear work, perhaps a bit much so for my own personal taste. One audience member clearly disagreed, whispering the word “beautiful” just after it ended.
The next work was a 1937 Latin setting of “De Profundis” by the Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), the last SLCC non-world premiere first SLCC performances of the afternoon. The SLCC’s other assistant conductor, Caroline Ibnabdeljalil, conducted this selection, and very capably. In a neat stylistic reversal of the earlier Billings selection, Pizzetti’s work begins with the lowest male voices, and sequentially adds higher voices.
Mr. Barnes then spoke about the process of commissioning a new work, before conducting the next selection, another revisit of a past SLCC commission, “Exaltabo” by the British composer Magnus Williamson (born 1967), premiered 13 seasons back. This is also very much on the mellifluous side in harmonic language, in a different way than Young’s work, although again just for my own personal taste, Williamson’s work felt a bit same-y in mood. Mr. Barnes ruefully remarked that Williamson has halted composition to focus on music scholarship.
The final work on the printed program indicated unconventional concert thinking. Generally, classical concerts with a world premiere composition don’t put said composition at the end of the concert. Yet that happened here, with the world premiere of the “Height in Depth Suite”, the first SLCC commission from the SLCC’s newest composer-in-residence, Kerensa Briggs (born 1991). This work is in 3 movements, with settings of Psalms 130 and 121 framing a setting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem ‘Height in Depth’. Mr. Barnes mentioned in his opening remarks that the SLCC had previously performed works by Ms. Briggs that were more “miniature” in their focus, and that this commission allowed her to paint on a more expansive canvas (although she does also have a Requiem in her catalog, and Requiems generally aren’t miniature). As her setting of “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” from the SLCC’s Christmas concert last December indicated, Ms. Briggs writes in a generally tonal and audience-friendly idiom, not to mention a singer/performer-friendly idiom. Yet at the very end of her setting of Psalm 130, Ms. Briggs pulled a subtle trick by avoiding an easy harmonic resolution, less “dissonant” than up in the air, as if to say “we’re not done yet”.
The text of the Rossetti has a certain edginess, and one might have expected the music to take a slightly harder tone in parallel. Instead, Ms. Briggs sets the words in generally a mellow mood, without notable darkness or melancholy, except for a shift in that direction in the last lines of the Rossetti, for another slightly unresolved section close. The third section set Psalm 121 in a generally more optimistic tone, with a fully resolved conclusion – except that an errant electronic device sounded in the last few lines, not a standard cell phone ring tone, but some sort of low-level humming vibration. The audience intuited instantly that something was amiss, because no one applauded after Ms. Briggs’ work had concluded. Mr. Barnes then addressed the chorus to request a “retake” of the final part of the third movement, which the SLCC did, without electronic mishap on the next go-around. This time, the audience applauded, and Ms. Briggs graciously took several bows with Mr. Barnes. It transpired that one reason for the “retake” was to provide Ms. Briggs with a sonic memento of the world premiere, as blemish-free as possible. Earlier, Mr. Barnes had not given the standard request to silence all cell phones either at the concert’s start or after intermission. As much as one would think that classical concertgoers don’t need such reminders, maybe they’re still necessary.
The concert was not quite done, as the encore called the piano and the church’s organ console, hitherto unoccupied, into action. In principle, having an encore after a world premiere seems odd, especially if one wishes to allow the new work and its composer “the last word”. However, the encore was strategic on several levels, namely another past SLCC commission, by the British composer Judith Bingham (born 1952), her own setting of Psalm 121, “I Lift Up Mine Eyes Unto The Hills”. Diana Umali, the SLCC’s regular rehearsal pianist, took her spot at the piano, and Spencer Smith, a tenor in the chorus, sat at the organ console. All throughout, the SLCC and Mr. Barnes performed the works with their standard high level of preparation and performance, not least in the context of a very demanding program with a world premiere and 5 other works new to the SLCC’s repertoire.
Regarding long-game thinking, it remains to talk about the thread between the Kerensa Briggs world premiere and the Judith Bingham encore. That thread is Sarah Bryan Miller, the late classical music critic and journalist for the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch”. The SLCC commissioned the Bingham work in honor of Ms. Miller, as she was nearing the final phase of the cancer that ultimately claimed her life in November 2020. Ms. Miller first heard Bingham’s composition in late 2019 in a private performance by the SLCC, and subsequently in the last public SLCC concert before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in February 2020. The SLCC commission for the Kerensa Briggs work resulted in key part from a bequest of Ms. Miller’s estate to the SLCC, where Ms. Miller had designated funds for the composition of a new choral work in honor of her parents. (Additional funding from Linda Ryder and Bruce Ryder completed the commission’s costs.) Presumably as with Ms. Miller’s comparable bequest to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, her regular coverage and reviews of the SLCC prevented her from donating to the SLCC during her lifetime. To clarify a slightly confusing (at least to me) passage in the program notes on the Briggs commission, the composer or the subject matter of the Miller bequest commission had not been determined in advance. It was thus sheer happenstance that this commission from Ms. Miller’s bequest ended up going to a young British female composer. The notes commented that this may well have pleased Ms. Miller to no end, because of her championing of female composers and Anglophile tastes. The obvious poignancy is Ms. Miller’s commissioning of a new choral work that she would never live to hear. Ms. Briggs honored both Ms. Miller and Ms. Miller’s parents well here.
At the SLCC’s Christmas concert, Mr. Barnes wryly noted that he’s been in the business long enough to have conducted music not only by Kerensa Briggs, but also her father, the composer and organist David John Briggs (born 1962). One wonders if a future SLCC concert will feature works by father and daughter on the same program. For the moment, the SLCC has another Kerensa Briggs world premiere scheduled for its May concert. The word on the street is also that a studio recording of Ms. Briggs’ new work, along with other SLCC commissions not yet recorded, is in the planning stages.
The St. Louis Chamber Chorus season continues with "Despair to Hope," featuring works by Knut Nystedt, Stephen Paulus, Gabriele Fattorini, and Clare Maclean, on Sunday April 16th. The performance takes place at Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Charles. More information is available at the SLCC web site.