Sunday was a big day for choral music: In the afternoon, the St. Louis Chamber Chorus sang a program built around a Russian Orthodox work for Holy Week at St. Stanislaus Kostka Polish Catholic Church. That evening, St. Louis Cathedral Concerts presented the Choir of New College, Oxford.
SLCC artistic director Philip Barnes built his program around “Passion Week,” a big, complex work in 11 movements by Maximilian Steinberg (1883-1946). Steinberg, from a Jewish family in Vilnius, studied with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in St. Petersburg, converting to Christianity and marrying his teacher’s daughter. Soon after “Passion Week” was completed in 1923, the Soviet authorities banned all religious music; Steinberg never heard it performed.
It had its world premiere in 2014; this was its Midwest premiere.
Barnes often puts parts of a mass setting with thematically linked pieces, often including a world premiere. This time, the movements usually had Znamenny chants (complicated descendants of Byzantine chants) on which they were based between them; the exceptions were two works each by Anglo-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova (b. 1980) and Anglo-Polish composer Roxanna Panufnik (b. 1968), with the William Byrd setting that Panufnik used as a base.
“Passion Week” is a complex, harmonically rich and arresting work that adds to traditional Russian Orthodox harmonies. It was also more monochromatic than a typically varied Chamber Chorus concert. It was all beautifully sung, with solid bass underpinning. Assistant conductor Andrew Jensen, who (unusually) did most of the conducting, brought out the inner voices nicely. The fine soloists included baritone Christopher Boemler and soprano Mary Chapman.
The Byrd Kyrie stuck out, in this context; Panufnik built on it, an anxiety-ridden take for an anxiety-ridden age. Her “Love Endureth” uses Sephardic elements; hers is an interesting creative voice. Soprano Kate Leslie sang her solo beautifully.
Tabakova’s pieces had their U.S. premieres on Sunday. Her “Troparion of St. John Rila,” deeply informed by Slavic church music, received a thoughtful reading from Barnes and the choir; “Alma Redemptoris Mater” makes excellent use of the women’s voices, alternating in Gregorian chant.
The men and boys of the renowned Choir of New College, Oxford, led by Robert Quinney, gave a program of music by Palestrina, Walton, Tallis and Allegri, among others.
The red cassocked choir’s opener was Walton’s setting of the Jubilate Deo (Psalm 100), a well-sung performance of a modern classic. They moved to Palestrina’s “Sicut cervus” (taken slowly, as required by the spacious acoustic of the Cathedral Basilica) and Victoria’s lovely “Ave Maris Stella.”
An organ solo played by the gifted organ scholar Charles Maxtone-Smith gave the singers a break. Another setting of “Ave Maris” followed, this one by Matthew Martin, director of music at Oxford’s Keble College; a good contrast to the Victoria, it’s a compact and pretty piece of writing.
Herbert Howells’ “Like as the Hart,” a staple of the repertoire, was lovely. The first half ended, appropriately, with the interesting Magnificat setting from the New College Service by Paul Drayton (b. 1944).
The second half opened with Gregorio Allegri’s famed setting of Psalm 51, “Miserere, Deus.” The superb solo quartet sang from the upper galleries, moving from the west dome to the back of the church to the east dome, adding to the piece’s vocal interest. It was done well by all, and the solo treble nailed all of his high Cs.
After a pair of Tudor compositions and a solo by assistant organist Timothy Wakerell, the program concluded with C.H.H. Parry’s big 1894 anthem “Hear My Words, Ye People,” ending with the familiar “O Praise Ye the Lord.” In sections for full chorus, a sextet (alto, tenor, bass, three trebles) and solo sections for soprano and baritone, it had an outstanding group of soloists, with the treble particularly notable. The encore was Sheppard’s “Libera nos, salva nos,” a thoughtful end to the evening.