The St. Louis Chamber Chorus. Photo by the author.

For its fourth concert of the 2023-2024 season (February 18), the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus (SLCC) and its artistic director Philip Barnes presented a program on the theme of “The Austro-Hungarian Empire” at the Shrine of St. Joseph on North 11th Street, just north of downtown near the St. Louis Post-Dispatch building and America’s Center.  The concert centered around the “Missa Choralis” of Franz Liszt (1811-1886), one of two first performances by the SLCC in the program.  Per Mr. Barnes’ program notes, this was Liszt’s third setting of the Latin Mass text, which he completed in 1865, although its publication did not occur until 1869.  The SLCC did not sing the work as a single continuous entity but presented it in five separate movements interspersed with works by Michael Haydn, Agnes Tyrrell, Johann Strauss Jr., Anton Bruckner, and Gustav Mahler.  

For classical music followers, the name of Franz Liszt is primarily associated with solo piano music, works like the Piano Sonata in B Minor, “Années de Pélerinage” (“Years of Pilgrimage”), and the “Hungarian Rhapsodies”, along with his two Piano Concertos and a few works for orchestra like “Les Préludes” (whose main theme featured back in the 1930’s for the “Flash Gordon” movie serials).  In particular, many solo piano works of Liszt have fistfuls of notes, which is no surprise because of Liszt’s tremendous virtuoso piano playing abilities, and thus can sound quite flashy, or even sometimes “trashy”, depending on one’s personal reaction.  Liszt also enjoyed his share of wine, women, and song in his life, as one of classical music’s earliest “rock star” personalities.

In this context, it thus can be a considerable surprise to hear in the “Missa Choralis” a very different side of Liszt, in its sincere devotional treatment of the text of the Mass and avoidance of flash or trash.  Liszt was well into middle age by the time of the “Missa Choralis”, and his religious feelings had certainly developed by then.  In the work itself, quirks present themselves, like a curious syncopation towards the end of the first movement ‘Kyrie’ on the word “eleison” (‘have mercy’), with distinct pauses between syllables (“e-le-i-son”).  Likewise, even though the ‘Kyrie’ has but three lines of text, Liszt gives those lines a very extended setting.  In fact, as Mr. Barnes noted, the work’s second movement, the ‘Gloria’, is actually considerably shorter than the ‘Kyrie’, even though the ‘Gloria’ has far more text.  Liszt certainly knew how to vary effect within a movement, so that he saves a “wall of sound” level of volume for near the close of the ‘Credo’, the work’s third movement, and the last movement before intermission.  Following intermission, the work’s fourth and fifth selections, sung together, the ‘Sanctus’ and the ‘Benedictus’, offered a nice study in contrast, with the outgoing extrovert sound of the line ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ followed by the spacious, contemplative mood of the ‘Benedictus’.  The work’s final movement, the ‘Agnus Dei’ (‘Lamb of God’), was also quite restrained in feel, although Liszt effectively used a crescendo on the final ‘Amen’, to close the work in an optimistic manner.

In the first half of the concert, between Liszt’s ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Gloria’, the SLCC sang a setting of the “Ave Regina” (“Hail, Queen”) by Michael Haydn (1737-1806), the younger brother of Franz Joseph Haydn, in the SLCC’s first performance of this work in 29 seasons.  This was a new listening experience for this writer and may well have been my own first live experience of any of Michael Haydn’s music.  Given Michael Haydn’s dates toward the end of the Classical era, it was fascinating that this work sounded almost “Romantic” in style.  

Between the Liszt ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’, the program’s fourth selection brought the other first performance by the SLCC, and indeed a first performance in the USA, of “Gebet” (“Prayer”) by Agnes Tyrrell (1846-1883), a totally new name to me and most probably to everyone in the audience and the SLCC as well.  The background to the choice of this work is itself quite a story.  Born in Brno to a British father and a Czech mother, Tyrrell dedicated her all-too-short life to composition.  Scholarship on Tyrrell thus looks primarily to be in Czech.  This choral selection became available through the scholarship of Blanka Šnajdrová and her 2019 Master’s thesis at Masaryk University in Brno.  As well, the SLCC regularly features choral works by female composers, but finding a female composer during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire proved incredibly difficult, as Mr. Barnes wryly noted in his spoken introduction to the work.  There was also the slightly comic situation of a Czech scholar in contact with an American choir to work on preparing an updated performing edition of a work set in German.  

Mr. Barnes also noted that even if Tyrrell’s composition had not been good, they would most likely have gone ahead regardless with a performance.  On this one hearing, Tyrrell’s “Gebet” is not an undiscovered masterpiece.  But it’s OK, and is eminently worth a listen.  It would be interesting if more of Agnes Tyrrell’s works, choral and otherwise, can achieve more live performances, with the general increasing interest in female composers after years of omission.

The remaining three selections on the program, in the second half of the concert, were from very familiar names in classical music.  The first work in the second half was a motet by the young Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899), his motet “Tu Qui Regis” (“You who rules”), which Strauss composed at age 18, and which the SLCC last sang 21 seasons ago.  This motet has nothing of dance rhythms, waltz, polka, or otherwise, from the future Waltz King.  Following the Liszt ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’ was a choral section by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) in time for his bicentenary this year, “Os Justi”, previously performed by the SLCC 11 seasons back.  Bruckner is best known for his massive symphonies of minimum one-hour duration, but this motet shows him working successfully at a much shorter time scale, and with no sharps or flats in the music as well.  

The final selection on the printed program was an arrangement for unaccompanied chorus of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world’), the third of the “Rückert-Lieder” by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), the “Rückert” in question being Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), a German poet of the Romantic school.  Like Bruckner, Mahler was also known for his large-scale symphonies, although to my knowledge, Mahler never composed single works for stand-alone unaccompanied choir.  He certainly incorporated a chorus into three of his symphonies and his one dramatic cantata, however.  Thus, this arrangement by the German choral conductor Clytus Gottwald is an attempt to fill that gap and to allow choirs to sing Mahler without requiring an orchestra.  The SLCC has sung this arrangement twice in its history, the last time 8 seasons ago.  For myself, I don’t recall hearing that performance, so that this was effectively a first live listen for me.  Speaking just for myself as something of a Mahler aficionado, this arrangement was skilled and well-intended, but more than a bit too much for me.  Perhaps I simply prefer the original version for solo voice and orchestra.  But as the cliché goes, your own listening mileage may vary.

My reaction to the Gottwald arrangement of the Mahler is no reflection on the SLCC’s performance, which was very good indeed, as was their work throughout the concert.  The choice of venue certainly helped.  This concert was this writer’s first-ever experience of the Shrine of St. Joseph, and a very impressive space it is indeed.  The acoustic of the Shrine of St. Joseph is very, very fine as well, with ample space for the sound to blend and a good, not-too-long reverberation time.  I also noticed a very distinct separation between the left and right halves of the choir in this particular acoustic, in a good way, compared to previous venues where the SLCC has sung, even though the choir was not divided into semi-choirs for this concert.  

The look of the venue is also very striking, which one appreciates all the more with the knowledge of how close it came to demolition many years back.  Mr. Barnes repeated a plea from the November 2023 SLCC concert at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in South City, for St. Louisans to appreciate notable churches in the local region as much as they enjoy visiting celebrated European cathedrals and churches.  The audience attendance was OK, certainly not full.  But the Shrine of St. Joseph is a fairly spacious venue, in fairness.  As well, there was musical competition at the exact same time from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra downtown at Stifel Theater fairly close by, with a much more familiar work to draw in audiences.  In addition, very sunny weather and unusually mild temperatures (although perhaps not so unusual now, given climate change-driven weather extremes that are the new normal – the SLCC’s February 2023 concert almost exactly a year ago also had unseasonably warm weather) after the sudden snow snap late last week might have motivated people to enjoy the outdoors.

The general SLCC season program booklet forthrightly stated that the Shrine of St. Joseph is in what was once “the worst neighborhood in the city”.  However, a walk there from America’s Center indicates that the immediate surrounding area looks more promising than what that past reputation indicates.  Street parking is a bit tight, though, so carpooling is to be encouraged (this writer took MetroLink and did the long-ish walk from Convention Center to the venue, not a practical option for most folks, I realize).  The Shrine of St. Joseph is a splendid venue for the SLCC for its acoustics and atmosphere, and one hopes for additional return performances there in future years.  Similarly, with regard to the Liszt “Missa Choralis”, with this first performance now under the SLCC’s belt, it will be interesting if a future performance presents the work as a continuous entity from start to finish.

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