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St. Louis Chamber Chorus closes season with works of beauty and imagination

Culture Club

Sarah Bryan Miller of St Louis Post-Dispatch

On Sunday afternoon, as in most years, the St. Louis Chamber Chorus concluded its season with a Memorial Day weekend concert.

That tradition gives artistic director Philip Barnes a built-in theme for programming, with requiems and other music that evokes those we have lost on a weekend that should be about much more than picnicking.

The choir’s concept for 2017-18 was one of dance; Sunday’s concert, at First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, was entitled “Memorial Dances.” It included one of the most beautiful a cappella requiem settings ever composed, a winning new commission and a set of choral dances that deal with time.

The Chamber Chorus is the finest a cappella choir in the region, with a rich blend of well-trained voices, excellent musicianship and an imaginative leader in Barnes, whose perfectionism is an asset. That perfectionism became apparent during the concert, but it paid off in the overall high quality of the performance.

SLCC composer-in-residence Melissa Dunphy concluded her term with this concert and the world premiere of “Suite Remembrance.” Dunphy, the composer of the remarkable “What do You Think I Fought for at Omaha Beach?,” chose four texts (from an 18th century German dance of Death, Isaiah, Emily Dickinson and Psalm 30) and set them using the distinctive rhythms of four Renaissance dances (saltarello, gavotte, sarabande and gigue).

The result is engaging, ranging from the melancholy to the sprightly; Barnes stopped one movement and restarted it after a phrase, but it was otherwise well-sung. This is a work that will certainly be picked up by other choirs.

It followed the six Choral Dances from Benjamin Britten’s 1953 opera “Gloriana.” They’re a bright and cheery sequence with plenty of rhythmic invention and received a fine performance.

The second half was devoted to “Requiem,” by the great composer of English church music Herbert Howells. Written after the death of his 9-year-old son Michael in 1935, it was unpublished until 1980. It’s a beautiful and (despite Howells’ professed agnosticism) deeply spiritual composition in six movements, a rich and ravishing setting of familiar texts.

It received a performance to match, until a soloist came to grief at the very end of the final movement. Barnes started the section again, and this time it came off perfectly.

The program began with William Schuman’s “Three Carols of Death,” to texts by Walt Whitman; they range from the disquieting to the outright beautiful. Next came “Requiem Aeternam,” by the German Romantic Peter Cornelius, to a poem by Friedrich Hebbel, and Daniel Pinkham’s perky “Thou Hast Turned my Laments into Dancing.”

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