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Saint Louis Chamber Chorus remembers and renews in its 60th season

Áine O'Connor of KWMU St. Louis Public Radio

The Saint Louis Chamber Chorus begins its diamond jubilee season Sunday, September 27, in celebration of its long tradition of introducing a cappella music—familiar, unfamiliar, new, traditional—to St. Louis audiences.

“We try to present to the public the great choral pieces—unaccompanied choral pieces—by some very familiar names: Brahms, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, various people that you would know if you’re into classical music,” said artistic director Philip Barnes. “But we intersperse those pieces with some unfamiliar works. And some of those are pieces that I believe are unfairly neglected, all the way back to the 15th century.”

Barnes has led the Chorus for 27 years. “It’s quite something, particularly when you consider that we’re sort of like the thinking person’s choir,” he said. “We don’t perform music that you sit back and go, ‘oh, I love this old chestnut’—we’re dedicated to broadening your horizons and giving you experiences that you wouldn’t get anywhere else. And so the fact that we’ve made it to 60…that’s a great feeling.”

The St. Louis Chamber Chorus begins is 60th season Sunday, September 27. Artistic director Philip Barnes and composer-in-residence Melissa Dunphy joined "Cityscape" to discuss the diamond jubilee anniversary season.

The opening concert of the season, “Sing a New Song,” reflects and remembers the Chorus’ 60 years of diverse repertoire. It will feature Renaissance music, reconstructed by Washington University musicologist Craig Monson; archetypal American compositions such as Copland’s “In The Beginning;” and chamber pieces by Pachelbel, Brahms, Holst, and Sibelius.

In celebration of St. Louis and the Chorus’ 60 years here, the Chorus will also perform an original work by composer-in-residence Melissa Dunphy, titled “Alpha and Omega,” which revels in the rebirth of a city. “Alpha & Omega” is composed of pieces of text from Revelations, John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and the African-American spiritual “Oh, what a beautiful city.”

Fittingly, the Chorus will perform Dunphy’s new piece at Third Baptist Church. “It’s a wonderful space to perform choral music,” Barnes said. “Of course, that’s why we chose Bunyan, because he’s such a pillar of Baptist theology, and we want to put all these different themes together.

“It’s a wonderful piece,” Barnes added, to Dunphy. “Thank you.”

Dunphy’s position was established in 1998, signifying the Chorus’ mission of commissioning and presenting new work. Dunphy is now the fourth composer-in-residence. “It’s so great to be part of a choir that’s keeping choral music alive,” she said.

Dunphy, who was raised in Brisbane, Australia before moving to Philadelphia, said that she takes special interest in the words of a song. Her choral compositions often feature non-traditional lyrics: combinations of thematically similar but vastly different texts—and in one case, a verbatim transcript of a state Senate testimony.

Dunphy derived the lyrics to “What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?” from a speech given by World War II veteran Phillip Spooner to the Maine Senate, in which he spoke passionately in favor of same-sex marriage as a fundamental issue of equality. The video of Spooner’s testimony went viral, Dunphy said, and had her sobbing in the studio. She immediately decided to turn it into a choral piece. The Chorus performed and recorded the song in its 2012-13 season.

“I perform this piece because I think first and foremost it’s a wonderful piece of music,” Barnes said. “And I was very gratified that people of persuasions, of different points of view on the argument, came together and said, ‘this is worth doing, this piece, because its musical value is so high.’”

All season long, the Chorus will nod to its practice of commissioning and premiering new work. In the opening concert, the Chorus will revisit “Music and Ceremonies,” composed by founder Ronald Amatt 20 years ago.

Revisiting old pieces as the Chorus turns 60, Barnes said, is a reminder that the organization must continuously renew itself. “I think you’re only as good as your last performance. And I think that if you don’t have a vision for the future, you won’t have one. The last thing we can do is sit back on our laurels.”

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