Guided by Voices

Classic Arts Features   Guided by Voices
Amy Kaiser contemplates her tenth season as director of the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus.

Amy Kaiser is in summer mode. In khaki shorts and a green Mostly Mozart T-shirt, Kaiser gives her visitor a tour of the artwork around her University City home, including a Josef Albers square on one wall, a Red Grooms taxi on top of a cupboard, and, in the hallway, an antique print promoting the 19th-century singer Jenny Lind. Spencer, a lovable, black, longhaired cat, stretches in the morning sunlight as Kaiser prepares a cup of coffee.

The summer casualness, however, belies the busy season that is commencing, Kaiser's tenth as Chorus Director. Auditions were in August and a diverse group of programs is being prepared for 2004-2005.

The Saint Louis Symphony Chorus is made up of approximately 140 members who reaudition every year. "I look for singers who have beautiful, strong voices and good range," says Kaiser. "I look for musical people who have choral experience, can read music, and love to sing. All those things go together, and it's getting more competitive. We have a lot of singers who return year after year, but we always welcome talented new members‹especially tenors!"

Visiting conductors have taken notice of the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus. Richard Hickox, who conducted Belshazzar's Feast last season, wanted to take the chorus back home to England with him for a tour. Nicholas McGegan, who conducted Haydn's The Seasons last year and leads the Saint Louis Symphony premiere of Handel's Israel in Egypt in April 2005, called the chorus the best in the States, bar none.

"This is very flattering," Kaiser says of the high praise, "but there's no way we can let these things go to our heads. We know how hard we have to work to be so well prepared and each season presents new challenges."

Since the SLSO has been without a Music Director since 2002, both the orchestra and chorus have had to build relationships with a series of guest conductors. Some they were familiar with, some not. "What's been extraordinarily gratifying," says Kaiser, "is that each of the guest conductors that we've worked with for the first time has been enthusiastic and wants to work with us again. For example, Roberto Abbado was thrilled by the Alexander Nevsky last season."

The chorus is largely composed of volunteer members, with a core group of paid singers. Kaiser describes the qualities that make the ensemble so remarkable: "We're very strong vocally and there's a lot of musicality." She pauses, then adds, "and giving‹people really give their all in performance. They work hard leading up to the performance, but in performance they watch, they're alert and sensitive to what the conductor is asking them to do through gestures and through expressions‹they respond the way the orchestra responds."

Each season poses different challenges and rewards for the chorus and Kaiser and Chorus Manager Richard Ashburner schedule the appropriate rehearsal time for each program. This year, says Kaiser, the chorus faces "a very intense beginning": the premiere of Robert Kapilow's Lewis and Clark symphony, Summer Sun, Winter Moon (October 15-16), closely followed by Berlioz's Requiem (November 12-14), a major work that the chorus has not performed since 1987.

"We have a Cathedral Concert in January with Dvorák's Mass in D," Kaiser continues, "a beautiful work, never been performed here. Then we have the Poulenc Gloria with Jun Märkl (February 4-5), which we have done, but that's still a substantial piece that we'll need to relearn. Holst's The Planets comes up two weeks after that (February 18 and 20). We'll use a smaller group of women. That piece is short but it's very demanding in its way. To get the right texture and balance and to hear the cues, it always takes more work and attention than you think it's going to."

The chorus's season concludes, as it did last year, with a major work conducted by McGegan: the Saint Louis Symphony premiere of Israel in Egypt (April 22-23). Kaiser assesses Handel's degree of difficulty and the pleasurable return on the labor required: "It is in English and it's a Baroque piece. Therefore it is easier to learn than the completely unfamiliar piece by Robert Kapilow‹which is in 7/8 and 5/4 and has more dissonant language and American Indian dialect. But Israel in Egypt is still hugely challenging because of its magnitude, the number of double choruses, and the fact that most singers don't know it at all. At the same time it's wonderful to end a season with such a discovery."

Symphony patrons can also look forward to members of the chorus taking solo parts this season. "Three chorus members will be soloists in Handel's Israel in Egypt in the spring," notes Kaiser. "Kristen Frost, soprano, and Jeffrey Heyl and Robert Reed, baritones. In October, soprano Laura Medendorp is doing an Emily Dickinson song cycle by Aaron Copland, conducted by Scott Parkman (October 15-16). These are major solo appearances with the orchestra. I'm very, very proud of these singers."

The chorus performs with three conductors for the first time this season: Kapilow, Märkl, and Andrew Litton. "We have a wonderful time with these guest conductors," Kaiser says, but she, like the entire organization, anticipates the arrival of David Robertson as Music Director in 2005. "Our new Music Director loves the chorus, and we love working with him. We did Mahler's Second Symphony together last spring and it was so exciting. We're looking forward to building that relationship."

Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

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