Ronald Arnatt, who lived in St. Louis from the mid-1950s until 1980, is perhaps best remembered as the founder, in 1956, of the St. Louis Chamber Chorus, which sometimes performed as the Ronald Arnatt Chorale.
As its fourth music director and another remarkable Briton, Philip Barnes has also left a mark, transforming the chorus into a major pillar of St. Louis musical life, making 14 recordings, performing more than 1,300 works and commissioning numerous new pieces.
Having missed the 2020-21 season and 20 months of performance because of the pandemic, Barnes began his 32nd season, and the chorus’ 66th, Sunday afternoon at Washington University’s 560 Music Center.
The season is titled “Pastime With Good Company,” a quote from a part-song by Henry VIII, and this concert was titled “We Are the Music Makers,” after a poem by Arthur O’Shaughnessy set to music by Melissa Dunphy, a former composer-in-residence with the chorus.
Barnes’ choices of repertoire are always interesting, continuing Arnatt’s British flavor but also exploring the wide range of choral music available today. In addition to the world premiere of the Dunphy piece, this concert featured the well-known and popular Gloria in D Major by Vivaldi and six mostly religious pieces by the early Baroque composer Monteverdi, two of which were directed by assistant conductor Andy Jensen.
Beginning with the Vivaldi, the chorus demonstrated that singing through matching black masks didn’t deter from a rich, well-balanced choral tone, resonant on the bottom and balanced on top. The use of two violins and harpsichord gave the performance historical authenticity, and the inclusion of a cello and organ might have emphasized that even more. The assigning of some of the orchestral music to the piano was confusing.
The music by Monteverdi was similarly beautifully performed with enthusiasm, a rich choral tone, appropriate tempi and sympathetic response to Barnes’ enthusiastic direction.
In addition to being a composer, Dunphy is a string player and actor. Her setting of the first three verses of the O’Shaughnessy poem reflect the power of music in an accessible style greeted enthusiastically by the audience. As has sometimes been the custom with new music, the piece was repeated.
The Vivaldi and Monteverdi pieces are parts of the great choral literature of the ages. “We Are the Music Makers” would be a practical, audience-friendly choice for a high school mixed choir with piano accompaniment.