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St. Louis Chamber Chorus opens 60th season in spectacular fashion

Sarah Bryan Miller 0 of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Philip Barnes and the singers of the St. Louis Chamber Chorus opened their 60th season on Sunday afternoon at Third Baptist Church with music by composers from the choir’s past and present, and multiple settings of the concert’s theme, “Sing a New Song.”

The opener, “Consecrate the Place and Day (to Music and Cecilia),” by Edwin Fissinger (1920-1990), set the tone. A group of songs — by the Swedish Wilhelm Stenhammar, the Finn Jean Sibelius and Britain’s Gustav Holst — that celebrated the season of autumn were beautiful, surprising and evocative.

Another welcome work was the first SLCC commission of the afternoon, Washington University professor Craig Monson’s reconstruction of “Hymnum Cantate Nobis” (from Psalm 137: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”) by Renaissance composer Gabriele Fattorini. A few sopranos skimped on the occasional high note, but it was overall a delight.

So were the settings of “Sing a new song”: the Elizabethan Thomas Tomkins’ complex and satisfying “O Sing unto the Lord a New Song,” Claudio Monteverdi’s great “Cantate Domino,” and Johann Pachelbel’s “Singt dem Herrn ein neues Lied.” All were satisfyingly sung; the Pachelbel was a particular pleasure, the double choir providing great peals of joyous sound.

The new composer-in-residence, Melissa Dunphy, contributed a new song, “Alpha and Omega.” For two choirs, it effectively juxtaposes texts from “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and the Book of Revelation, in a solidly written piece of choral writing. Two challenging but lovely 20th-century British works, “Heart’s Music,” by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar’s “There Is Sweet Music” were both beautifully sung.

Barnes overloaded his second half. It began well, with the three “Fest- und Gedenksprüche” songs for mixed chorus by Johannes Brahms, classics from a master, and well-sung despite a couple of scary entrances. It ended spectacularly, with Aaron Copland’s huge “In the Beginning.”

In between, there was SLCC founder Ronald Arnatt’s big sing “Music and Ceremonies,” an SLCC commission from 20 years ago. Barnes programmed it for its connections and text, which led to the Copland, but was simply too much for the choir and the audience. Led by assistant conductor Orin Johnson, it got a good performance with a fine solo quartet, but the room’s unforgiving acoustic didn’t help.

Copland’s rarely heard “In the Beginning” is one of the longest continuous a cappella choral works ever written; the text is from both the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis. It also has one of the longest a cappella solo parts ever written, knocked out of the park by soprano Mary Ongjoco Chapman with beautiful singing, clear diction and an authoritative delivery. The choir matched her point for point, for a splendid finish to the concert.

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