The St. Louis Chamber Chorus specializes in first-class performances of a cappella choral music, but there’s more to the group than that.
Artistic director Philip Barnes scours the region for suitable venues, bringing his listeners into buildings they might otherwise never enter. For the choir’s first concert of the season, “Rebirth & Revival,” he chose Resurrection of Our Lord Roman Catholic Church in south St. Louis.
The building, completed in the early 1950s, is midcentury modern at its best. Designed by Joseph Murphy of Washington University, with art glass by Robert Frei and the reredos behind the altar by Robert Harmon showing the risen Christ, it has been a city landmark since 1974. Today it’s home to a Vietnamese parish.
It has been recently renovated, with carpeting removed and marble floors and walls added. That made for a lively (to say the least) acoustic on Sunday afternoon, although the large audience in attendance mitigated some of the effect.
Barnes’ greatest genius is his programming. The concert’s theme was resurrection, and the musical choices reflected that. This year he’s also beefed up the bass section, adding depth and richness to the sound and providing a better foundation for the others. There were few musical missteps in the course of the afternoon.
Barnes paired two disparate multipart works, Francis Poulenc’s Messe en G and St. Louisan Martha Shaffer’s “Five Hymns from the Sacred Harp,” separating other elements in the program with them and allowing the open harmonies and engaging textures of the hymns to contrast with Poulenc’s more astringent music.
The concert opened with “’Tis the Day of Resurrection,” by Charles Wood (1866-1926), with a Byzantine text by St. John of Damascus (676-749) translated by the Victorian John Mason Neale. It’s a big sing, with exquisite writing, and the choir did it beautifully.
Barnes chose that same text, in a new translation, for the new commission by composer-in-residence Melissa Dunphy. Her “The Day of Resurrection” is written for double choir, a Chamber Chorus specialty, with liturgical echoes. Written mostly in 7/8 time, the music has an urgency that reflects the triumphal theme of the words. The new piece is a winner, and the choir gave it a superb performance.
Other highlights included “Reincarnations,” by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), three poems translated from the Gaelic and ranging from the tragic to the loving, and a reconstruction of “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625).
Alexander Gretchaninoff’s “Voskreseniye Hristovo videvshe,” from his 1912 setting of the All-Night Vigil, offered sumptuous Russian Romantic harmonies and full-throated Russian-style singing. The extra basses really paid off here, in a glorious performance.
The concert concluded appropriately with “Darest Thou Now, O Soul,” by Granville Bantock (1868-1946), a triumphal work with words by Walt Whitman, and an encore, “The Rice Drum Song,” a harvest song performed in Vietnamese.