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Barnes, Chamber Chorus raise the musical bar

Sarah Bryan Miller of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The St. Louis Chamber Chorus in 2011

Philip Barnes keeps raising the bar.

For Sunday afternoon’s concert at Christ Church Cathedral, Barnes, artistic director of the St. Louis Chamber Chorus, assembled yet another program of challenging, surprising and artistically satisfying music for his a cappella choir.

Sunday was Veterans Day, the 94th anniversary of the end of “the war to end all wars,” and the program reflected that, with works that ranged from a complete Mass setting by Giacomo Carissimi, based on the late medieval fight song, “L’homme armé” to a setting of the 2010 testimony by an Army veteran on the subject of gay and lesbian rights.

“L’homme armé,” one of the 15th century’s greatest hits, inspired more than 40 Mass settings. This one, for three choirs, almost certainly received its American première in this performance, in a new edition by Barnes and SLCC tenor Jon Garrett.

Given the martial nature of its source material, it’s a surprisingly cheery piece. Carissimi makes inventive, imaginative uses of the original tune, sung by the men to start the concert; in the Kyrie, the women’s choruses wove a beautiful tapestry of sound in the “Christe eleison.”

As is his wont, Barnes placed other works between the movements of the Mass. Appropriately following the Kyrie came Alun Hoddinott’s “Danegeld,” setting an account of the Battle of Maldon, when a Saxon king made the mistake of being gallant with Vikings, changing the course of English history. It’s a big, complex and difficult work, filled with dissonances to match its subject matter. The singers rose magnificently to its challenges.

That would have been enough in the Big Sing department for most choirs, but Barnes threw several more at his musicians. The second half brought Darius Milhaud’s “Cantata de la Guerre,” an enormous, dense work in four big sections that examines the coming of the Nazis in Old Testament terms. The choir performed it almost flawlessly.

The final piece on the program was Melissa Dunphy’s stunning 2010 “What Do You Think I Fought for at Omaha Beach?” Excerpts from veteran Philip Spooner’s testimony before the Maine Senate, in a hearing on the Marriage Equality Bill, its music ranges from the Coplandesque to the martial. The touching text and moving music were made powerful by the SLCC’s performance. (The answer to the title’s question is, “For freedom and equality. These are the values that make America a great nation, one worth dying for.”)

Other notable works included Wallingford Riegger’s “Evil Shall Not Prevail,” a lovely, evocative piece beautifully sung by the women, and the encore, Douglas Guest’s setting of Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen:” “They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn...”

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