"All the musicians and the singers are accustomed to doing music in many different styles," says St. Louis Symphony Chorus Director Amy Kaiser. "We welcome that. Variety is the spice of life."
But in most people's lives, seeking variety is a fairly pedestrian activity. Watch a movie from Iran, try Nepalese cuisine, cook with more cumin, wear clothing that displays a long leg with a heavy boot. Most of these things may be accessed with a phone in the palm of a hand.
Variety in a singer's life is like most things in a singer's life: to realize it takes talent, dedication, preparation, and devotion. For example, the Chorus sings Bach's B-minor Mass at Powell Hall, March 31 and April 1. "A third of the Chorus has sung the Bach before," Kaiser estimates, "but for many it's completely new. It's a great discovery, a big mountain to climb with enormous rewards."
Kaiser is discussing Bach a few hours before the Chorus joins the orchestra for a three-hour rehearsal of John Adams' Harmonium, which was performed at Powell Hall in January. The journey from A to B, from Adams to Bach, is an extraordinary one for singers, with no stepping stones in between. "They really are very different styles, different vocal demands, different musical problems," says Kaiser. "You do not need to count 79 measures of Bach. In Bach you recognize the harmonic structure readily; you have to use a fast throat, articulation. You don't have to do that at all in Adams. You have to sing much longer in Bach; Adams is 30 minutes, and not all of that is Chorus. Bach is double that. They're really very different, but the contrast is stimulating."
It's been a season of contrasts, of variety, for the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. "This season we've had nothing but high notes," Kaiser says proudly. The season opened with Stravinsky's Les Noces, sung in Russian, a work "unfamiliar and unknown" to the Chorus, says Kaiser. Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe, sung without words, had its own demands, challenges, and rewards.
Harmonium is the third Adams work the Chorus has sung with St. Louis Symphony Music Director David Robertson. "We've done Transmigration of Souls and El Niê±o," Kaiser recalls. "We do consider David Robertson to be the 'Adams whisperer.' He's made us love the work of John Adams."
The Chorus has displayed its virtuosity, power, and adaptability with the varied repertoire. "They do love it," Kaiser adds, "and that includes singing the music of John Williams [last December] and Final Fantasy [in March]. To add those to the mix is really fun. It's all fun, but some of it is much more disciplined fun. We learn such repertoire quickly. It's not a six-course meal, like Adams or Bach; it's hamburger and fries."
Kaiser has been preparing her singers for the shift from cuisine of the 20th century to that of the 17th in the midst of Harmonium rehearsals. "We've been preparing for months for the coloratura that we'll find in the B-minor Mass," she says, "little bits on a weekly basis. This is how we need to sing in a very different style beginning with the first Bach rehearsal on January 24."
Michael Bouman, a Chorus member since 1998, like his fellow singers has been immersed in Adams while at the same time preparing for Bach. "Learning the notes, the rhythms, and the words is really only 'square one' in music," he writes via e-mail. "Amy Kaiser told us the other night not to attempt any of the Bach on our own, up to speed, until we were completely secure with those basics, or 'You could hurt yourselves.' We've been given a web site URL where we can sing our part of each movement along with a synthesizer and we can set any tempo we want. For example, I'm working on the last two pages of 'Cum Sancto Spiritu' a very fast movement with an unrelenting rising passage at the end, which right now feels something like my own hanging. But, so that I could become accustomed to all the pitches, words, and rhythms, I dialed up a slow tempo. It's like training wheels on a bicycle."
It may be surprising to some that most singers find the contemporary Adams to be easier than old-school Bach. "Working up John Adams' Harmonium was a piece of cake compared with Bach's BMinor Mass!" says Bouman. "You might think it otherwise, but with Adams the challenges are not vocal but rhythmic.... It felt like fast downhill skiing, on ice, during the performance. But however we managed them, the problems were centered on counting and keeping one's head.
"Bach, on the other hand, requires a lot of tactical thinking about how to manage very angular, and sometimes very fast, passages," Bouman continues. "The problems are not with rhythm, words, or counting but with the task of producing beautiful tone in a musically intelligent way."
Musical intelligence may be one of the hallmarks of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, along with all that talent, dedication, preparation and devotion. "Every challenging work prepares us for the next challenge," Kaiser says confidently. "They can bring it off."
Eddie Silva is the External Affairs and Publications Manager of the St. Louis Symphony.