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Music review: St. Louis Chamber Chorus mixes music of simplicity and sophistication

Sarah Bryan Miller of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Philip Barnes and the St. Louis Chamber Chorus brought their 59th season to a close on Sunday with music by composers separated by 200 years and a world of sophistication.

The final installment of “Choral Titans” gave listeners an opportunity to compare and contrast works by William Billings (1746-1800) and Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012). The self-taught Billings is recognized as the first American professional composer and specialized in choral music; the urbane Bennett was an accomplished professional who wrote for every instrument.

On Sunday afternoon at Union Avenue Christian Church, the mix was heavier on Bennett than on Billings. That was a wise choice; Billings’ work has great appeal, but his harmonic palette was limited, and many of his texts tend toward Calvinist morbidity. Bennett’s greater variety of styles works better for sustaining interest over the course of a concert.

The program opened with Bennett’s setting of John Herrick’s “What Sweeter Music,” a lovely setting of the Jacobean poet’s beloved carol, and moved from there to Billings’ “A Virgin Unspotted.” Here and elsewhere with Billings’ works, Barnes made good use of differing dynamics and voice mixtures to increase the impact of the music.

In “Verses from the Litanie of John Donne,” echoes from Billings were audible in the work of Bennett. There were echoes of Donne’s own time (1572-1631) as well, in a well-sung, meaningful group of songs.

The one non-Billings, non-Bennett piece was by the Australian-born Philadelphia resident Melissa Dunphy. Her “Together” (the words are taken from the Acts of the Apostles, 2:44-46) is a beautiful piece with fascinating complexity. Starting next fall, Barnes announced, Dunphy will be the choir’s composer-in-residence, with a commission for the first concert in the SLCC’s 60th season.

The program’s most important work occupied the second half, Bennett’s settings of Edward Lear’s collection of nonsense poems known as “Calico Pie.” They’re terrific songs, but it’s rarely done because of their length (extraordinary for an a cappella choir) and difficulty.

Bennett’s music matches Lear’s texts. The most amusing was “The Cummerbund — ‘An Indian Poem,’” in which Lear misappropriates terms from Hindi and Urdu for comic effect. The Cummerbund becomes a woman-eating beast, while the unfortunate heroine sits upon a Dobie (a washerman) and “gold-finned Chuprassies” (better known as office messengers) swim. The echoes of Indian music added to the hilarity.

There were several big sings in the five-song group, but none was as tricky or challenging to the choir as the program’s final work, the quick-moving, musically and verbally tricky “The Akond of Swat.” In an experience that felt like watching a team of trapeze artists working without a net, the singers sailed through it.

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