Review: The Missouri State University Chorale illuminates the shared journey for peace and unity
By Gary Liam Scott
In an era in which we witness the reputation of academia tarnished, it is both gratifying and reassuring to be able to celebrate an institution that delivers a magnificent display of one of its star programs. Such was the case on Friday, January 13, when the Missouri State University Chorale performed a shining and rigorous concert of liturgical and spiritual works drawn from a rich variety of cultural sources.
Under the leadership of conductor Cameron LaBarr, the Chorale immediately demonstrated unity and tight organization. From the outset, the group seemed completely at home in the cavernous Basilica and maneuvered skillfully and thoughtfully through the aisles and onto the altar area in their opening selections. Much--most--of the program was sung from memory, despite the fact that only one short work was in English; the remainder employed Latin, Russian/Church Slavonic and Aramaic texts.
One of the ironies of choral music is that even though the various sections of the chorus must sing varying parts in order to achieve harmony, nevertheless the choir must sing united as if they are a single voice. That goal was clearly achieved by the Chorale. Additionally, the vocalists shone with expansive breath support on phrases that at times seemed to extend into the cosmos. Perhaps most notably of all, the challenging acoustics of the Cathedral Basilica seemed to offer no problem at all to the ensemble; diction and phrasing rang out with sparkling clarity.
Of particular note on the program was a performance of the "Son of God Mass" by contemporary British composer James Whitbourn, which comprised the entire second half of the program. At first glance, the scoring for chorus, organ and solo soprano saxophone may have seemed odd to some, but the use of the saxophone imparted a haunting Middle Eastern timbre to an ethereal work inspired by the composer's orchestral music written for a BBC documentary about the Holy Land. Saxophonist Matthew Tracy rendered a superb performance, as did MSU Artist-in-Residence Parker Payne on organ. Although voices and instruments must perform together with careful measurement in any ensemble work, the three forces working together nevertheless provided a quasi-improvisatory character to the various divisions of the work.
Another remarkable work on the program was Ilyas Iliya's a cappella setting of the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic (not to be confused with Arabic), "Avoonan Dbishmayya," composed in 2016. The literal English translation vividly illustrated the force and drama of the original tongue ("...let come your kingdom, let be your desire, even as heaven on Earth"). Although there were no specific works from Jewish liturgy on the program, this work is a reminder that Jesus/Y'shua himself spoke Aramaic in his everyday life, although Hebrew reigned as the liturgical language of Judaism. (Indeed, the Jewish prayer for the dead, the Kaddish, is written primarily in Aramaic.) Attempts over the centuries to de-Judaize the life of Jesus/Y'shua were momentarily washed away with this brief work, and listeners were reminded of the spiritual heritage that has preceded modern-day Christianity.
Sergei Rachmaninoff's contributions to the liturgy of the Orthodox church were represented by two chants from his "All Night Vigil." The swells and sustained phrases of these works powerfully evoked the mysticism and intense devotion that is a hallmark of the Orthodox church. The "All Night Vigil" has become a standard by which to judge the inherent strength and musicality of any choir that performs liturgical music; the MSU Chorale was more than equal to the task. Other composers highlighted on the program included contemporary composers Eriks Esenvalds, Caroline Shaw, Michael McGlynn, Arvo Part and Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria. The renown of many of these figures seems to only grow with the passage of time; solid performances by competent and well-rehearsed musicians and choristers have aided greatly in establishing and maintaining the work of such gifted composers.
Although he directed with meticulous attention to detail, conductor Cameron LaBarr seemed completely at ease, even in the midst of such a challenging program. His brief and down-to-earth remarks to the audience provided just the right amount of communication add a bit more understanding of the music. Clearly, he has done phenomenal work at MSU. Student soloists Theron LePage and Jan Veljak, baritones, and Emily Owings and Gabrielle Pierle, sopranos, performed with the consistency and confidence that can only be achieved with careful and thoughtful preparation; Jan Veljak seemed particularly suited to interpret the Middle Eastern/Israeli inflection of the Aramaic Lord's Prayer.
Although the selections centered largely on liturgical works, the program notes made a point of explaining that the underlying purpose of the featured works was to express the human need for belonging and unity. At such a point in human history as we now find ourselves, achieving this goal carries a particular poignancy. Many of the members of the Chorale are not music majors; however, their intense dedication and hard work, united under the skilled direction of Cameron LaBarr, are immediately apparent.
Special commendation is owed to Scott Kennebeck and the staff of the Cathedral Concerts hosted by the Archdiocese of St. Louis. This series continues to offer performers of the highest quality to people of all faiths--and surely, welcoming even to those of non-faith--in our community.