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St. Louis Chamber Chorus remembers lives lost with afternoon of mournful music
Concert review

St. Louis Chamber Chorus remembers lives lost with afternoon of mournful music

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St. Louis Chamber Chorus, 2017

Artistic director Philip Barnes and the St. Louis Chamber Chorus

For the second concert of its 66th season, St. Louis Chamber Chorus artistic director Philip Barnes chose music appropriate for memorials and funerals.

Performed Sunday afternoon at the beautifully eclectic Third Baptist Church in Grand Center, the concert honored veterans, victims of the pandemic and John Clayton (formerly of KFUO-FM and the Radio Arts Foundation).

The concert began with “Versa Est in Luctum” by Renaissance composer Alonso Lobo, which demonstrated heavenly harmony and counterpoint. Next was “Lord, Let Me Know Mine End” by English composer Maurice Greene, followed by two pieces by 19th century composers Felix Mendelssohn (“Verleih uns Frieden, Be Gracious and Grant us Peace”) and Johannes Brahms (“Geistliches Lied, Spiritual Song”), the latter directed by assistant conductor Orin Johnson.

In this music, the chorus managed to sing well even while wearing face masks — although the masks made it difficult to see who was singing which solo. The choir’s placement at the front of the sanctuary also may have had a muffling effect; putting the singers on risers might have helped.

Though some solos were difficult to hear, Christopher Boemler demonstrated a beautiful baritone in the “Libera Me,” arguably the most famous music in this requiem. Organ accompaniments were beautifully played by Andrew Peters. Both the church’s organ and its Steinway concert grand piano appear to be remarkable instruments.

As Clayton neared the end of his battle with cancer, he commissioned Sasha Johnson Manning — a favorite of Barnes, the chorus and its followers, and the group’s first composer in residence — to write a piece in honor of his wife, Jill, a member of the chorus.

Manning’s response was “A Spiritual Musick,” scored for choir and piano, which sets poetry by Christopher Smart and W.H. Auden; both texts were previously set to music by Johnson’s English compatriot, Benjamin Britten.

Smart’s poetry, which gives Johnson’s piece its title, associates musical instrument sounds with spirituality; Auden’s poetry is dedicated to St. Cecilia, patron saint of music. Johnson’s piece is substantial, bearing some similarity in style to the music of Britten. The piano part was ably and artistically performed by Diana Umali.

After intermission came the Requiem op. 48 by Gabriel Fauré, a piece Barnes had led the chamber chorus in more than 30 years ago when he auditioned to be its director. This featured the most full-throated singing of the concert.

When the Fauré Requiem ended pianissimo, the audience reacted with a standing ovation, bringing an encore. This was Sasha Johnson Manning’s setting for choir and guitar quintet of the poem “An Epitaph for the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon, ending with the words “We will remember them,” also the title of the concert.

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