By Tim Munro
Amy Kaiser ends her 26-year tenure as Director of the St. Louis Symphony
Orchestra Chorus at the end of this season. To celebrate her work with the SLSO,
I spoke with four current chorus members about Amy’s skill, curiosity, passion,
humor, generosity, and… of course, some serious tap-dancing skills.
Michael Bouman has been a bass with the SLSO Chorus since 1998 and is the
retired Executive Director of the Missouri Humanities Council. Debby Lennon has
been a soprano with the chorus since 1983 and is Adjunct Professor of Voice at
Webster University and Lindenwood University. Brian Pezza has been a tenor with
the SLSO Chorus since 2008 and works as a lawyer with Lewis Rice. Heather
Butler Taylor has been a soprano with the SLSO Chorus since 2019 and works as
an organizational effectiveness change management leader at Mercy.
The role of Chorus Director is mostly hidden from the audience’s view. But for many
months before every St. Louis Symphony Chorus performance, Chorus Director
Amy Kaiser is hard at work, preparing her community of largely volunteer singers
for the Emerson Concert Stage at Powell Hall.
Michael Bouman puts it simply. “Our symphony chorus might start out handling
like a Humvee, but once Amy’s worked with us, we drive like a Lamborghini.”
With Amy, the whole chorus also feels in such good hands. “She is a great
technician,” says Debby Lennon. “Amy knows how to access the best of what we
are doing, for whatever style we are working on. Watching her is poetry in motion.”
“Amy really knows how to organize the preparation of a big, complicated
work,” says Michael. Brian Pezza agrees. “I have never felt so prepared,” he says.
"Just knowing that is was going to work out. There's no frantic last rehearsal. That all comes from her planning."
Amy's success comes from trust, continues Brian. "She knows us, knows what we're capable of. She's very demanding, and wants us to be as precise as we possibly can be. But it's not in Amy's style to raise her voice, and she is able to pull things from us that we didn't believe were possible."
Long before each first rehearsal, Amy arms herself and her singer with information.
"She will call around and talk to other symphony chorus directors to see how they've approached it," says Michael. "She will read article on the composer and then she puts all these into an online resource for us."
"Then Amy takes that piece of music that you're holding in your hand," says Heather Butler Taylor, "and makes it into something that is a living breathing thing. She gives you the full tapestry: what was on the mind of the composer, what was happening in the world when the piece was written."
"The connection to the text— it really paints the picture of what's happening in the work," says Debbie. "You're not just singing the notes," Heather says. "You're telling a story."
When Amy began her work with the SLSO Chorus, she was one of only a handful of women chorus directors in the country. Debby and Heather both mention her status as a trailblazing director. "When I auditioned, three women on the panel listened to me," says Heather. "That was the first time in my twenty-plus-year avocation as a symphony chorus member. The fact that she is a woman in leadership means a lot to me."
"She has been a role model for me as a women in choral directing," says Debby. "She's been such an example for me in this industry."
In rehearsal, Amy brings her full self. "She has so much energy," says Debby. "As many years as she's been doing this, she has the energy of a 12-year-old." And rehearsals are full of laughter. "Amy will be amused by some little detail," says Michael, "and she'll start cackling with laughter."
"Amy is genuinely a funny person," says Brian. "She keeps the rehearsal very light-hearted. I'm a lawyer— I sing whenever I can, but this isn't my job. I think Amy knows that this is something that we're doing for fun, and tries to keep it engaging."
"Her sense of humor comes out at the most unexpected times," says Heather. "WE might be singing something serious, like the Mozart Requiem, and humor comes out of it in unexpected ways. And it brings delight to the music that we're sinning, no matter how familiar or difficult— she makes it all fun."
"The stories and jokes always have a function," says Brian. "She will yell stories, but they're always tied to the music. They are always getting us to the musical or textual place that she wants us to be."
"During rehearsals for the Brahms Requiem," he says, "she told this incredibly personal story, sharing it with 120 people. Not only did she have us laughing, she helped us understand more about the piece: that this requiem is about the living as much as it is about the dead."
Michael adds, "Amy will do anything to get the right kind of looseness or relaxation out of her chorus. She'll have us stand up, or do a little shuffle on the floor. She has been learning tap dance for many years, and she might just step off the podium to give a little demonstration of how this passage would be done is you were tap dancing."
This energy, says Michael, comes from her curiosity. “Amy loves to share ideas with people. That makes it so fun to be in that ensemble. You never feel like there's anything routine going on." Heather sums it up. "Amy is the coolest classical chorus director I have ever met."
Eventually, every Chorus Director must hand direction of the chorus to the person who will conduct the concert. "Amy prepares us for any possibility," says Michael. "Maybe something will go slower or faster or more lively more more legato. She studies the work of the conductors who are coming in, and she will always communicate with them."
"I know Amy has a vision for how she hears a piece," says Brian, "but she is never working toward solely her own vision. She knows that she has to empower us, to get us ready to pivot. There's kind of magic to that."
But her job doesn't finish once she has handed over direction of the chorus to another conductor. "She's always onstage with us during that final week of rehearsal, taking meticulous notes," says Debby, "and reminding us of the things that we prepared."
Then Amy takes her regular place to watch her beloved chorus during concerts. "Standing on stage of Powell Hall," said Brian, "I love I am able to see her right there, always in the front of the balcony."
All four SLSO Chorus members mention Amy's generosity. "She's been such an inspiration to all of us," says Debby. "Her energy and her expertise, her attention to detail. And she has made such an effort to connect with each and every one of us, to learn about our lives outside of music."
"Amy welcomes us into her world," says Heather. "She opens up her home and invites the chorus to come in. She just kind of opens herself up and says 'Here I am. Work with me, get to know me while I get to know you."
Tim Munro is the SLSO's Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.