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St. Louis Chamber Chorus delivers on revolution, revelation

John Huxhold of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Karpeles Manuscript Collection Library was conductor Philip Barnes’ latest pick as the venue for the concert Sunday afternoon by the St. Louis Chamber Chorus. On display were several documents in the hand and from the typewriter of Eva Peron that dovetailed nicely with the concert’s theme, “Revolution and Revelation.”

Right off the bat, the stirring lyrics of “Let Tyrants Shake Their Angry Rod” by American composer William Billings set the tone. In a strong declamatory voice, they described how, in the Revolutionary War, the British “vet’rans flee before our youth and gen’rals yield to beardless boys.”

His other piece on the program, “Lamentation Over Boston,” recalled the Boston massacre of 1770. It is a powerful call to arms to “Let horrid jargon split the air, and rive my nerves asunder” to defeat the enemy. In both the choir made the most of the straightforward harmonies and bracing, four-square rhythms.

In a similar voice, Robert Schumann’s “Drei Männerchöre aus dem Revolutionsjahr 1848” reveals his passion for European revolutionary movements, cheering them on with “Victory is yours, my nation of heroes! Who would be permitted to take it from you?” The music is more refined than Billings, but the sentiments are no less rousing and immediate.

Schumann is a somewhat unexpected source for this kind of material. On the other hand, Dmitri Shostakovich is well known to have had problems with the Soviets who found some of his work lacking proper socialist realism. But earlier in his career, his setting of a cycle of poems by anticzarist revolutionary writers won the Stalin Prize in 1952. Three of these settings proclaim that “our cause shall not fail” and warn, “They were victorious, but in the twilight of their years a final sacrifice still awaits.”

“Three Songs of Democracy” find composer Roy Harris setting poems of Walt Whitman in modern harmonies that effectively characterize terms such as open air, farms and trades. In addition, rich vertical harmonies reinforce “the democratic wisdom underneath, like solid ground for all.”

A similar robust muscularity is evident in the text painting and dynamics of Zoltán Kodály’s narrative of Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple. The crowds of traders materialize in complicated, dynamic phrases; by way of contrast, in “a house of prayer” they are softer and more relaxed.

While both Granville Bantock’s “Invocation to Pan” and Hanns Eisler’s “An den Strassen zu singen” (with its “Give way! Give way! Give way!" refrain) are a bit more ambitious, the loudest and longest applause of the afternoon went to Britten’s atmospheric, harmonically rich and technically interesting “Advance, Democracy” and Melissa Dunphy’s setting of, of all things, public testimony given by Philip Spooner before the state of Maine in 2009 regarding the Marriage Equality Bill.

“What Do You Think I Fought for at Omaha Beach” contains many dissonant, close intervals, a challenge the Chorus ran through without breaking a sweat and which brilliantly illuminated the changing emotions of the text.

The encore — the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” — rounded out the “revolutionary” theme. The perfect blend, precise execution and satisfying immediacy of the choral sound took excellent care of the “revelation” part.

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