The St. Louis Chamber Chorus in concert. Photo by George Yeh

Written by George Yeh

The Saint Louis Chamber Chorus (SLCC) began its 68th season last Sunday (October 5th 2023) with a very-well attended concert at Second Baptist Church in Richmond Heights, focused on composers from 9 of the 10 countries that touch the Baltic Sea.  It’s easy to surmise the unrepresented 10th country, for obvious current geopolitical reasons.  From the 9 represented countries, the concert featured music by 11 composers, 2 of them women, and 5 living composers from the full roster.  Two of the contemporary composers’ works received their US premieres at this concert, and two other selections received their first SLCC performances.

This musical Baltic Sea cruise began in Norway, with a work by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), Norway’s most celebrated composer and probably most famous for his Piano Concerto, op. 16, and his incidental music for the Henrik Ibsen play “Peer Gynt”.  The choral selection was the second of his “4 Salmer fritt efter gamle norske Kirkemelodier” (“Four Free Hymns Based on Norwegian Folk Melodies”), ‘Guds Søn har gjordt meg fri’ (‘God’s Son Hath Set Me Free’).  At the outset, SLCC artistic director Philip Barnes noted a very understandable mistranslation of the original Norwegian term “Salmer” as “Psalms”, since the two words look so similar.  In fact, the Norwegian term “Salmer” more accurately translates as “Sacred Songs”, to use Mr. Barnes’ term, or “Hymns” (from this writer using on-line translators).  Moreover, Mr. Barnes pointed out an inconsistency that the Biblically literate would grasp instantly, in that the Psalms are from the Old Testament, but mention of Jesus Christ is from the New Testament, which compounds the error of the mistranslation of “Salmer”.  This admittedly trivial digression has a larger general point:  details matter.

But back to the music.  Perhaps as the final irony here, the SLCC sung the Grieg in an English translation by Percy Grainger (1882-1961), rather than the original Norwegian.  To at least this listener, Grainger’s translation sounded rather melodramatic, perhaps in keeping with the music’s extrovert nature.  This work features a notable baritone solo, well delivered by Christopher Boemler.  Nostalgia factored into the choice of the Grieg, as it featured in the SLCC’s very first concert back in 1956, and in five separate seasons since.  The second work moved one border east, with the concert’s first US premiere, “Lead Me, Lord” by the contemporary Swedish composer Mårten Jansson (born 1965), a former SLCC composer-in-residence.  Jansson set lines from Psalms 4 and 5 (proper Psalms this time) in English.  For me, as a matter of personal taste, the work was nice and pleasant to hear once.

The second US premiere of the concert followed, crossing the Baltic Sea for “Aurei Regina Caeli” (“The Golden Queen of Heaven”, to use a rough translation) by the Lithuanian composer Raminta Šerkšnytė (born 1975), a work from 1996, during her student years at the Lithuanian Academy of Music.  Ms. Šerkšnytė set three Marian hymns in Latin by the Polish poet Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski (a.k.a. Matthiās Casimīrus Sarbievius; 1595-1640).  The first two hymns are in praise of Mary Magdalene, in contrasting moods.  The first hymn, “De D.Maria Magdalena” (“The Blessed Mary Magdalene”), is quite austere in mood, and slower in pace, a good contrast also with the Mårten Jansson right before, with a surprise deep bass drone ending.  The second hymn, “D.Magdalena Sub Cruce Flens” (“Blessed Mary Magdalene: Weeping at the Foot of the Cross”) is more energetic and faster-paced.  For the third hymn, “Ad D.Virginem Matrem” (“To the Blessed Virgin Mother”), in honor of the Virgin Mary, four female singers moved from the main choir to the balcony, two in each back corner.  This final movement did feel a bit prolonged, at least to me.  However, it’s worth remembering that this is the work of a composer in her very early 20’s, still in school, so to speak.  It is a fine, assured work, and well worth hearing.  Given that I found only one other purely choral work by Ms. Šerkšnytė, one infers that this performance marked the SLCC’s first performance of any of her music.

The fourth selection jumped two borders over to Estonia, for music by her most famous contemporary composer, Arvo Pärt (born 1935), his 1997 setting of the tale from Matthew 26:6-13 of the anointment of Jesus Christ at Bethany, “The Woman with The Alabaster Box”.  The terms “holy minimalism” and “tintinnabuli” often attach to Mr. Pärt’s music, with implications of bell-like sonorities, spare textures, repeating and meditative motifs, and spacious tempi.  Certainly the slower pace of this work fit in with that stereotype.  An unintended error in the program insert snipped the second half of the text, which Mr. Barnes filled in by reading the full text of Matthew 26:6-13 before the performance. 

The concert’s first half very effectively closed with a far more extrovert work, the “Magnificat” for three choirs by the 17th century Polish composer Mikolaj Zielenski, about whom very little is known, not even his dates.  Its energy level is high and very forward-moving for its first 2/3 or so, but then it dials down very effectively for its final section.  For this Zielenski work, 3 male SLCC singers migrated stage left / chapel right to the pew, as something of a counterpart to the Raminta Šerkšnytė work. 

Following intermission, Latvia was the destination of the second half’s first selection, “On Friendship” by Eriks Esenvalds (born 1977), an SLCC commission from 5 seasons back, and a setting of a text by Khalil Gibran.  Mr. Esenvalds writes very mellifluously and in a very emotionally warm manner, teetering on the edge of facile sentimentality to at least this listener.  The next work crossed the sea to Finland, “I Am the Great Son” by Jussi Chydenius (born 1972), for what was probably the most “modern”-sounding work of the concert.  Mr. Chydenius used what might be regarded as choral versions of “extended techniques”, like whispers not at specifically defined pitch and something like sing-speech.  It’s not “atonal”, but it’s not “easy listening” either.  The poem, by the English poet Charles Causley (1917-2003), took inspiration from a 17th-century French crucifix, with discourses on various attributes of Christ.

The penultimate ‘set’ on the Baltic choral cruise featured two selections from Germany and one from Sweden, on the theme of night/evening.  The first of this set was “Abendlich schon rauscht der Wald” (“Evening falls over wood and plain”) by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847), a setting of a poem by the German poet Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), a name familiar to classical art-song aficionados, and receiving its first SLCC performance.  Second was “Nachtwache II” (“Night Watch II”) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), last performed by the SLCC 32 seasons ago, a setting of another frequently encountered poet in German art songs, Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866).  Third in the set was “Aftonen” (“The Evening”) by the Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960), setting a poem by his compatriot Herman Sätherberg (1812-1897), last sung by the SLCC 30 seasons back.  These three selections are very much in the 19th-century Romantic tradition, even the Alfvén work, from 1942.  Following the charm of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s work, the Brahms was notably concise, which then contrasted with the more expansive Alfvén work, even though the Alfvén text looks shorter than the Brahms text.

The final destination on the printed program was Denmark, for a selection by Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), Denmark’s greatest and most famous composer to date, more known for his orchestral works rather than choral music.  This was the third of Nielsen’s “Three Motets”, op. 55, ‘Benedictus Dominus’ (‘Blessed Is the Lord’), a setting of lines from Psalm 31, previously sung by the SLCC 22 seasons ago.  In fact, Nielsen set only two lines of text, but really went to town with those two lines, in a very varied and often extrovert way, for an optimistic near conclusion to this concert.  The ”near” is because the SLCC and Mr. Barnes provided an encore, as they normally do, with a return to Latvia and to Eriks Esenvalds, his “O salutaris hostia” from 2009.  This work is very much in the style of his earlier work on the concert, in its sentimental aura, with some swoopy-sounding passages for the ladies, again at least to me. 

All throughout, the SLCC and Mr. Barnes delivered the music with their customary strong and solid musicianship, through an impressive diversity of styles.  Second Baptist Church has a very fine acoustic, especially notable from my balcony seat, and all the more impressive in that the space has a considerable portion of seemingly flat wall surface.  However, the surface looked like brick, so that “flat” may well have been a relative term here.  Having the pews very well occupied certainly helped the acoustic, with three additional rows of free-standing chairs set up in the back for additional patrons, where the crowd numbered around 200, by eyeball estimate.  Of course, in a venue with larger capacity, 200 wouldn’t qualify as a “full house”, but that happily was the case here. 

The one audience blot was just before the first piece started, after Mr. Barnes gave his customary admonition to turn off cell phones, when one phone resounded.  If it had to happen, it was at least during a silent moment.  AFAICT, the second half seemed to go off phone-free.  Another manifestation of the audience size was that the church grounds’ grass took a hit with all the extra cars from the parking lot overflow.  (Maybe the SLCC and Mr. Barnes should encourage car-pooling to SLCC concerts, if people feel comfortable with car-pooling now.)   With this concert, along with the recent season-opening concerts by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Arianna String Quartet, and the Ariel Concert Series, among other ensembles, the 2023-2024 St. Louis classical concert season is off to a terrific start. 

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