March Madness

Classic Arts Features   March Madness
The Saint Louis Symphony Chorus performs a marathon of Masses, with Beethoven's Missa Solemnis on March 1 and 2, and Haydn's Heiligmesse on March 22 and 23.

At the first chorus rehearsal of the season, back in September, the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus started working on Beethoven fugues and pushing flu shots. It is most unusual for us to perform two major Mass settings within three weeks, and since Beethoven's Missa Solemnis demands every ounce of every singer's vocal capacity, and Haydn's Heiligmesse, while balm for the voice, is long and unfamiliar, the winter of 2003 would be no time to catch the flu.

The Symphony Chorus began the season with a program to celebrate the reopening of the Continental Building (some chorus members got great close-ups in the PBS feature a few weeks later) and continued with a complete performance of Messiah in December. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which is never easy to sing, even compared with the Missa Solemnis, closes the season in May.

Beethoven's demands on the chorus are legendary: the long, sustained high A's for sopranos and tenors and high F's for the basses in the Ninth Symphony (the alto part is high, but they get off relatively easy) have strangled many singers. But while the familiar "Ode to Joy" whirls in an adrenaline rush to the end, the Kyrie, Gloria, and Credo of the Missa stretch on and on, higher and higher, with turn-on-a-dime dynamic changes, bizarre, unexpected rhythms, and wildly fast or painfully slow fugues, depending on the conductor. The glorious Benedictus allows the chorus to rest a bit, but then renewed energy must be found for the extended drama of the Agnus Dei. And even if Saturday night's performance goes fabulously well on March 1, there's no time for a celebratory drink; we must climb the mountain again, fresh and rested, early the next afternoon.

Not only do we need to meet Beethoven's vocal challenges, we must also try to get the whole work into our minds, to "digest" it, to "see the forest for the trees." With a work as profound and complex as Missa Solemnis, that musical challenge is truly overwhelming. Our only keys to vocal survival and, we hope, musical success are to start rehearsing early and cultivate healthy, voice-saving techniques. Sectional rehearsals led by Assistant Director Leon Burke help to master the fugues, and rehearsing in quartets (each made up of one soprano, one alto, one tenor, and one bass) helps everyone lighten up and hear each other. With guest conductor Donald Runnicles, an expert operatic maestro who is sensitive to singers, we look forward to well-paced rehearsals (so as not to wear us out), a good balance with the orchestra (so as not to drown us out), and a driving vision of the 90-minute whole (so as not to let us lose energy or concentration).

In contrast to Beethoven's continual stretching of the human voice, Haydn uses a comfortable range throughout. It is great fun to sing the Heiligmesse mixed up in quartets (which is affectionately known as "hashed seating"), and we will perform it that way with Nicholas McGegan. Not all conductors like this arrangement, as they cannot point to a unified soprano section, for example, and ask for more crescendo. But with the singers spread evenly over the stage the sound is smoother and lighter and everyone hears better. Last season, we sang Handel's Alexander's Feast with Maestro McGegan in a hashed setup, and it worked very well.

Our 140 chorus members travel from all over greater St. Louis and beyond on Tuesday nights to rehearse in Powell Hall. One alto comes all the way from Hermann; one bass from Springfield, Illinois. Many of the singers have degrees in music and are professionally active as soloists (six are featured in the Heiligmesse), voice teachers, music educators, music retailers, church organists, and choir directors. Burke conducts the University City Symphony, Debbie Stinson brings opera to the schools with "Opera Is Elementary," and Jermaine Smith will represent St. Louis in the regional Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions. (Daniel Webb, who sang with us last season, has made the extraordinary leap to Broadway as Colline in Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème.) Many with music degrees have moved on to other professions and give us the gift of their extensive musical backgrounds. Our extraordinary Chorus Manager, Richard Ashburner, for example, was an operatic soloist and is now a nationally recognized inclusion facilitator with the St. Louis County Special School District. In addition, a good number of singing lawyers, physicians, computer experts, master gardeners, business people, and arts advocates of all kinds make the commitment to study voice privately, enhancing our collective sound.

Members of the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus are passionate about singing. As their sound soars over the orchestra during the Missa Solemnis and the Heiligmesse, you will see and hear all their musical involvement‹that is, assuming those flu shots back in October were effective.

Amy Kaiser is Director of the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus.

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