The Black Tulip Chorale at Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in 2023

Surely we all understand that music can provide solace in times of stress and mental anguish; even the Bible speaks of King Saul of Israel being comforted by the harp and voice of the future King David. In their spring concert, the Black Tulip Chorale and Music Director Robert Stumpf probed the challenge of maintaining mental health and stability in our lives today and the ability of music to lift our vision and outlook. Themed "There Will Be Light," the May 19, 2024 program spotlighted personal stories, thereby demonstrating the universality of confronting the challenge.

The program featured an amazing array of vocal and choral works, ranging from Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" to Benjamin Britten's Agnus Dei from the "War Requiem," contemporary musical theatre selections, Joni Mitchell ("Both Sides Now"--a thoughtful choice despite the fact that Mitchell's antics during the covid lockdowns may have had a negative impact on the mental health of some folks) and classical works. The audience got to hear Robert Stumpf as a vocal soloist himself in a performance of Robert Schumann's "Ich grolle nicht" (I Bear No Grudge) from his cynical yet poignant song cycle, "Dichterliebe" (A Poet's Love). Anyone familiar with the life and work of Schumann would recognize the immediacy and pathos of this piece, penned by a composer whose own life was ravaged and cut short by mental illness.

The entire second half of the concert was devoted to a cycle of songs composed by Michael John Trotta (1977--), set to poetry by St. Louis-born Sara Teasdale, herself a victim of suicide. Trotta's treatment of Teasdale's words emphasized their reflective nature, utilizing the oboe, itself a very reflective instrument, ably performed by Mark Douglas Pye, as a wordless yet eminently vocal participant, along with the chorus and chamber ensemble.

The effect of the selection of featured works on the program demonstrated the fact that mental illness can occur almost anywhere and is no respecter of persons, whether rich or poor, genius-level or below. Sometimes "therapy" simply fails, so it is important that we each persevere in our personal journeys to wholeness. The personal testimonies that were both spoken during the performance and written in the program, gave ample evidence of this.

The format of Black Tulip performances has adopted a pattern of combining personal stories, written words, choral and instrumental works. The result becomes almost a multi-media presentation that speaks to each audience member on a personal level. Speaking purely on a personal note, for me the choral works make the strongest impact. Robert Stumpf is a superb choral director, and the members of the chorale have demonstrated an outstanding ability to sing united as one voice, whether loud or soft, from a mounting crescendo to a winnowing sigh, with an ethereal blend. I always look forward to hearing the group sing together, along with the hardworking vocal soloists and the collaborative instrumentalists who provide the backbone of support to any solid vocal performance. As time goes on, it will be wonderful to hear the Black Tulip Chorale venture into new territory--regardless of whether "new" means music written centuries ago or currently created.

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