WHAT WE SING & WHY
The Saint Louis Chamber Chorus dedicates its efforts to the promotion and appreciation of choral music, its mission being not only to entertain, but to educate and inspire. Programs are devised to match music to venue and occasion, and result is a unique marriage of the architectural diversity of St. Louis with the finest a cappella compositions.
Original texts and languages are sung by the Chorus wherever possible, usually without accompaniment; a season may span up to ten languages. To respect further the integrity of each work, individual songs or movements are rarely excerpted, so that the audience may appreciate the composer’s true intentions. Most significantly, strenuous efforts are made to marry musical texture to a suitable setting, not only culturally but also acoustically: the various venues are the choir’s ‘instruments’ and each must be ‘played’ differently. Consequently, the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus is not bound by any individual auditorium. The Chorus has in fact occasionally traveled beyond its home in the Midwest, performing at The White House, Carnegie Hall, and on tour in Germany.
Premières are always found in every season, as the Chamber Chorus acknowledges its obligation not only to the composers of yesterday, but of today and tomorrow. This is not entirely altruistic, as adventurous performers and listeners alike relish the ‘new.’ To this end, the Chorus has commissioned numerous original works and editions, and has introduced other works to American audiences for the first time. Most concerts each season include a world, American or St. Louis première performance.
The repertoire of the Chorus ranges from the Renaissance to the present day. The diverse nature of the Chorus’ repertoire is yet more daunting for its linguistic range, with as many as ten languages sometimes appearing in a single season’s repertoire.
Although the Chorus is perhaps a little too large to perform Renaissance madrigals written on an intimate scale, there is nonetheless much other Renaissance repertoire which benefits from a ‘choir’ (rather than a ‘consort’) performance. Among the more recognized composers from this period regularly represented in the Chorus’ programs are Gibbons, Handl and Palestrina.
The Chorus’ programs explore the choral writing of acknowledged masters such as Brahms and Holst whose instrumental music may already be familiar; this provides a different perspective on composers who tend to be better known for their orchestral works. In this respect the Chamber Chorus acts as a ‘classical ensemble,’ complementing other organizations such as the St. Louis Symphony and Philharmonic Orchestras.
As befits a mixed voice choir, particular attention is paid to the literature of the nineteenth century, a period when choral singing enjoyed a great revival and highly proficient choruses developed in many European and American cities. In response to this new constituency, composers wrote challenging and extended works, and indeed such masters as Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann found remuneration in writing for, and training, these ensembles. In most seasons, then, the Chorus performs lieder or motets by these composers and their contemporaries.
The renaissance of choral music in Britain during the past hundred years provides another focus for the choir (not a surprise, given the background of the founding and current artistic directors). To this end, the Chamber Chorus has performed many works by Holst, Howells and Vaughan Williams, and by some St. Louis premières of works by contemporary British composers, such as Judith Bingham and David Matthews. Modern American composers are also well represented, with several world or regional premières by Howard Helvey, Stephen Paulus and Ned Rorem, to name but a few.
Some composers excelled in writing for the voice, and their works constitute a central portion of the Chamber Chorus’ repertoire. Through the Chorus’ performances you can appreciate the creativity of a wide chronological and geographical span from Adrian Willaert to Herbert Howells. Many of these works are not widely recorded, if at all, and so our concerts represent a unique opportunity to hear them performed in St. Louis. Every generation may claim its share of the unjustly forgotten, and most Chamber Chorus concerts include hitherto unknown ‘gems,’ sometimes by indifferent composers rising, albeit briefly, to write a beautiful miniature.
The development of the choir’s repertoire and its high standard of performance have been corroborated in a series of commercial CDs. Following several privately recorded discs, the Chamber Chorus released a disc of ancient poetry settings through Bolchazy-Carducci (Chicago). This was followed by a selection of Spanish music for Guild Records (Switzerland), and most recently seven discs for the British label, Regent Records. These recordings have garnered praise and coverage in a wide range of publications, from Gramophone magazine to Choral Journal, to The Guardian, a national daily newspaper in the UK.
Such recordings are currently the only way to enjoy the Chamber Chorus if attending one of the season’s six performances is not a possibility. The choir does not tour or perform at conventions; its primary focus is to present a series of subscription concerts in the greater St. Louis area. Programs are tailored to, and often inspired by, the physical setting of the performance, and given the city’s extraordinary wealth of architecture and traditions, this may include Hungarian motets, Hebrew laments, and ancient Greek choruses, and all within the space of four or five months. Performances are not repeated, and repertoire is rarely repeated within a ten year cycle, all of which encourages choral music lovers to make the choir’s concert dates a priority.
The Makeup of a Season
Prior to our 50th anniversary season, a familiar structure had developed for the arrangement of the season’s six concerts. We began with a Voices program that centered upon a single tradition, like Brazil or Hungary, and followed this in November with a secular concert; the ethnic theme returned with the Christmas performance, as in A Polish Christmas. The second half of the season often began in February with a performance at the Cathedral-Basilica, and this large-scale venue was then contrasted, in April, with a more intimate performance by either the men or the women of the Chorus. The season concluded with one of the great settings of the Requiem for both accompanied and unaccompanied voices.
Since the 50th season, on the other hand, the Chorus has expanded its horizons to present a more eclectic series of concerts that explore a series of themes, as well as the greatest works of the a cappella canon. Christmases continue to have a distinct theme, and other presentations have focused upon a single tradition, but some of the other ‘unifiers’ have ranged from an exploration of great musical cities of the world (e.g., London, Vienna, Rome) to different settings of single poets (e.g., Shakespeare, Rilke, and Whitman). Though programs are increasingly original and diverse, we continue to feature one or more significant choral masses from the Renaissance to the present day, complete cycles of lieder or madrigals, and highlights of repertoire otherwise not heard in St. Louis because of their challenge. Collaborative projects, both with composers and other performers, are a frequent feature of Chamber Chorus concerts, and demonstrate the broad reach and appeal of choral music.