Philip Barnes understands the relationship of sound to space. As artistic director of the St. Louis Chamber Chorus, he has developed a nearly perfect acoustic rapport between the chorus and the Second Presbyterian Church in the Central West End.
“We are at home in this space,” he said Sunday afternoon during SLCC’s Concert IV, “Einstein Considered Light as Waves.” And from the very first notes out of the chorus, all in attendance knew he was right.
The SLCC performed pieces ranging from baroque and romantic to modern, including a world premiere. The first part featured music by Jiri Rychnovsky, Claudio Moneteverdi, Valborg Aulin, Robert Schumann, Randall Thompson and Judith Bingham.
The first half ended with a “song of hope and faith,” the world premiere of the complete version of celebrated English composer Judith Bingham’s setting of Psalm 121, “I Lift Up Mine Eyes Unto the Hills.” Commissioned by a consortium of six area choral organizations led by the SLCC, the composition is dedicated to longtime Post-Dispatch classical music critic Sarah Bryan Miller.
Miller was diagnosed with cancer about a decade ago. Recently hospitalized, she was able to attend the concert.
Bingham’s music involves fascinating harmonies and rhythms, including a charming, undulating passage with a moderate 6/8 feel. The complex music proved worthy of the text and provided an appropriate emotional context, weighty yet comforting. Soprano Christine Guthrie performed poignant solo work, and the piece ended as most of the selections did all night, with all sections of the chorus in perfect accord.
The crowd agreed and stood for an extended, emotional ovation in appreciation of the piece, the performance and in honor of Miller who was clearly moved by the experience.
Barnes praised Miller for her “tireless efforts” to cover classical music in St. Louis. He said it might be strange for a director to say of a critic, but he appreciates criticism from Miller because as a former professional singer (with Lyric Opera of Chicago), “she knows what she is talking about.”
The second half of the concert featured composers Howard Helvey, Viktor Kalinnikov, Dobrinka Tabakova and Steven Stucky and included Sweedish composer Ingvar Lidholm’s “a riveder le stele (a river of stars).”
Tabakova’s “Einstein Considered Light as Waves” provided the title for the concert and another spiritual lift for the audience. The “quasi-religious” music uses text written by Einstein and explores light through sound, “light as an almost supernatural creation,” Barnes said. The chorus provided nuanced control of the multiple textures that make up its organum style.
Lidholm’s “a riveder le stele (a river of stars)” sets verses of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” to music. This remarkable piece follows Dante in limbo as he “(toils) to return to the world of light.” Dante’s liminal space in the narrative resonates in the music, which itself exists in the in-between — not quite tonal, not quite a-tonal. As Dante strives toward the light of the stars and spiritual harmony of the spheres, the music strives toward tonality and harmonic resolution.
The SLCC pulled off this difficult piece with apparent ease. The amorphous rhythm gave way to the sound of complex harmonies and melodies; at times parts of the chorus sounded gritty, almost like throat singers, at other times like singing bowls emitting pleasingly visceral overtones, as if the spheres of heaven, or at least the cavities of the Second Presbyterian Church, were resonating to the music.
The piece ended as soprano soloists Arianna Aerie and Mary Chapman mirrored each other while they stepped from their positions in the chorus and slowly walked down the side aisles of the church, each one taking her turn at the melody, Aerie from the left of the audience, Chapman from the right. The effect was an ethereal surround-sound experience that filled the space with undistorted music — a breathtaking conclusion to an ambitious, uplifting program.