Photo by George Yeh

On Memorial Day Sunday afternoon, the closing concert of the 2023-2024 season of the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus (SLCC) took place on the ‘home ground’ of its artistic director Philip Barnes, namely John Burroughs School, where Mr. Barnes is a classics teacher.  The concert theme was “Nations United”, with selections by nine composers from five countries.  For this concert, in JBS’ Haerrter Hall, a bespoke female choir of 17 high school students joined the SLCC for two works.  The young ladies were from John Burroughs School (one), Liberty High School in Lake St. Louis (five), Lindbergh High School in Sappington (four), Ritenour High School in Breckenridge Hills (five), and Timberland High School in Wentzville (two).

All five nations featured in the concert’s first half.  The program began with the Antiphon of the British composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983), in its first SLCC performance.  Howells set text by George Herbert (1593-1633) from The Temple, in an extrovert manner that begins “Let all the world in every corner sing, / ‘My God and King!’”.  From this opening, a surprise to this reviewer was the dryness of Haerrter Hall’s acoustic, very different from the churches that are the SLCC’s usual concert spaces.  However, one possible reason for the choice surfaced in the next two works, “Omnes Gentes” (‘All races of Man’) by the Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli (~1555-1612), last sung by the SLCC 18 seasons back, and “Edel sei der Mensch” (‘Noble is Man’) by Beethoven (Austrian, of course), most recent performed by the SLCC five seasons ago.  The Gabrieli divided the SLCC into four sub-choruses, while the Beethoven went further with six sub-choruses.  The dryness of Haerrter Hall’s acoustic aided clarity of discerning which sub-chorus was singing its part.  

The full chorus regrouped for “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” by the American choral conductor and composer Noble Cain (1896-1977).  Cain was a new name to this writer, though not to the SLCC, which last performed this work 27 seasons ago.  In his day, Cain was a noted figure in the American choral scene, but seems forgotten now.  His neo-romantic work sets comparably neo-romantic text by Francis Bourdillon (1852-1921), who was both a poet and a private tutor to several grandchildren of Queen Victoria.  The next selection, “Grace Before Sleep” by the Springfield, MO-based composer Susan LaBarr (born 1981), set a text by the St. Louis-born writer Sara Teasdale (1884-1933).  Ms. LaBarr’s work had a very hymn-like, monophonic feel, in contrast to the Gabrieli and Beethoven multi-sub-choral works from earlier.  Moments reminded me of Britten’s setting of the old folksong “Down by the Salley Gardens”.  Mr. Barnes made the best case for her work, and for the SLCC’s general advocacy of female composers, although this work, at least for me, touched the edge of bathos and pushed obvious buttons of sentimentality more than once.  The rest of the audience didn’t necessarily share my opinion, from their applause.

The first half closed on an optimistic and upbeat note with the Haitian-born composer Sydney Guillaume’s “Alleluia, Amen”, an SLCC commission first heard six seasons back.  SLCC co-assistant conductor Orin Johnson conducted here, and the 17 high school ladies joined the SLCC on stage front and center for the first time in the concert.  Before the performance, Mr. Barnes paid them generous tribute for giving up some of their off-school hours to prepare and rehearse for this concert.  It showed, as both choirs did a very fine job with it, well directed by Mr. Johnson.  

The concert’s second half featured three UK composers whose works all received SLCC first performances.  The second half began with “New Day” by John David (born 1946), of the 1970’s band Airwaves, in an arrangement by Peter Knight.  This was likewise a totally new work to me, although other vocal groups like The King’s Singers have covered it.  Like Ms. Labarr’s work, this arrangement of Mr. David’s song had a comparatively monophonic feel to it, albeit without the tinge of bathos, and with a surprise very low sustained bass note at the end.  In an “only live” moment, Mr. Barnes sensed microphone feedback and did a rewind of the performance.  Next was The New Commonwealth, by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), where the composer reused music from his score to the 1941 feature film 49th Parallel, set to a text by Harold Child (1869-1945).  Intended as an unofficial anthem for the British Commonwealth of Nations, Vaughan Williams’ work is in a richer and heftier vein compared to the second-half opener.  This was likewise my own first experience of hearing this composition in any form, although I’ve seen the film 49th Parallel on video many years back.

The final work in the printed program was Voices for Today by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), the seed work for this concert.  However, a narrative break is needed here, to jump back to just after intermission.  At that earlier point, Mr. Barnes delivered on the “to educate” part of the SLCC’s mission statement, and also called on his classics background, with an extended talk about Britten and the presence of his music in St. Louis, especially through Colin Graham and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and the particular choice of Latin pronunciation for this work.  On the latter point, Mr. Barnes mentioned that Sir David Willcocks, a past illustrious British choral conductor, used ‘church Latin’ pronunciation in preparing a recording of the work.  For this performance, however, Mr. Barnes directed the SLCC to deliver the text in ‘classical Latin’.  

The United Nations commissioned this work for its 20th anniversary.  U Thant, then the UN’s Secretary-General, asked for a work that used texts from “the great peace lovers of history”, which chimed with Britten’s own pacifism.  The work anthologizes passages from fifteen different authors, ranging from Sophocles, Lao Tzu, and Virgil (a.k.a. Vergil, as the program gives his name) from the ancient past up to then-contemporary voices such as Albert Camus, Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, all but one given in English translation.  The exception was the Latin text of passages from Virgil’s “Eclogue IV”, the most extended selection by a single author in the work.  The bespoke high school choir rejoined the SLCC for the Britten, but from the Haerrter Hall balcony rather than on stage, with their own conductor, SLCC co-assistant conductor Caroline Ibnabdeljalil.  The work’s design meant that the two choirs operated somewhat independently of each other.  However, the other putative advantage of the choice of Haerrter Hall came into play here, because the two choirs were far closer to each other than would have been the case in most churches with one choir upstairs.  Under all these circumstances, both the SLCC and the young ladies’ choir did very well.  The demands of the work have rendered performances of Voices for Today quite rare, and the Chamber Chorus billed this performance as the St. Louis premiere, if not the US Midwest premiere.

After the young ladies walked downstairs to take a bow (and then took seats in the audience), stagehands wheeled over the on-stage piano, for SLCC rehearsal pianist Diana Umali to take her place, for an encore by Melissa Dunphy (born 1980), a past SLCC composer-in-residence, her 2021 setting composed for the SLCC of Arthur O'Shaughnessy’s “We Are the Music Makers”.  The whole concert indicated the standard professionalism of SLCC and Mr. Barnes throughout, as is the norm for them.  Haerrter Hall’s particular acoustic did impact the sound, with no lack of volume and dynamic range, but perhaps with clarity taking the place of overall resonance.  For their next season, the SLCC travels to 6 venues all new to them, per Mr. Barnes, so it will be of interest to hear how the chorus sounds in each of those new spaces.

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