The St. Louis Chamber Chorus is known for many things — the high quality of its a cappella singing, its adventuresome programming and commissioning of new works (many by women), its variety of venues.
All this was demonstrated at Sunday afternoon’s season-opening concert, “Swimming Over London.” It featured a moving world premiere by Australian-born composer Melissa Dunphy.
The setting was the Masonic Prince Hall Grand Lodge in the Central West End, home of a traditionally African American Masonic organization. The building is a former swimming pool; known as the “Loreley” for the mythological Rhine temptress, it retains an unusual acoustic that lends additional depth of tone to the singing.
Artistic director Philip Barnes started each half, appropriately, with a setting of Heinrich Heine’s famous poem “Die Lorelei” by Friedrich Silcher (1789-1860). The first was his original, so familiar that it’s often mistaken for a folk song; the second was the same tune as arranged by Helmut Barbe (b. 1927). It’s a perky song and was well sung in each manifestation.
A group of three songs about rivers — Henryk Górecki’s “Wislo moja, Wislo szara” (about the Vistula), Stuart McIntosh’s “The Water of Tyne” and an arrangement of “Shall We Gather at the River?” by Stephen Paulus — came next, each lilting and flowing, each beautifully performed. The lovely “To Be Sung Upon the Water,” which helped to establish the reputation of Samuel Barber (1910-1981), was a natural follow-up.
Bob Chilcott’s “Swimming Over London” proved light and pop flavored, with a fine soloist in tenor Nathan Brown. Highlights in the second half included “Drei Gesänge,” by Johannes Brahms, the first a pleasant piece, the second spirited, the last tragic but richly uplifting.
Edgar Bainton’s arrangements of two songs — “The Ballad of Semmerwater” and “The Water-Side” (also known as “Ca’ the Yowes”) — led to “Loch Lomond,” arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with some solid, appealing singing from the second tenors.
Dunphy’s “Waves of Gallipoli” commemorates Winston Churchill’s unmitigated disaster in World War I, when, as First Lord of the Admiralty, he landed Commonwealth, French and Russian troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula, only for them to be slaughtered by the Turks. Thousands on both sides were killed and wounded.
Dunphy chose five epitaphs from Australian and New Zealand graves (“How much of love and light and joy/is buried with our darling boy”), framed by verses by an Australian veteran, Leon Geliert, and filled with the sounds of the swelling surf. The result, commissioned by Dorsey and Sondra Ellis, is complex but accessible, heartbreaking and harmonically rich. The encore was René Clausen’s arrangement of “Deep River,” with gorgeous solo work by tenor Dereck Basinger.
Most of the singing was first-rate, with the exception of some issues in the first soprano section.