Malachi Owens has the longest tenure of any member of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus to date. He has appeared as a soloist with the SLSO eight times, and is also a charter member of the IN UNISON Chorus.
How did you get started singing?
I began singing with the children’s choir at my church when I was 4 years old. My brother and sister sang with this choir and I tagged along to be with the kids. My mother taught me my first solo, "Blessed Assurance," which happened to be her favorite song. I did many solo appearances at my church with this song. I progressed through the various choirs at church and even began to direct them in my teens. I sang tenor then.
My sister was a member of an elite choir at my church that did the “big” stuff like Handel's Messiah and Dubois' The Seven Last Words of Christ, as well as many spirituals. I would accompany her to rehearsals and sit with the basses whom I aspired to become. I loved the low parts. I came to love classical music with its fugues and great liturgy. It was more of a challenge than just singing hymns. But don’t get me wrong, I love hymn singing and wish that genre wasn't diminishing.
In high school, I had a genius of a choir director, Mr. Kenneth Brown Billups, who taught us many large works. As high school students in the Sumner a capella choir, we sang with the SLSO in the 1960s. I gained even more experience through the all-city high school choir who also performed with the SLSO. I sang Beethoven's Ninth for the first choral concert dedicating Powell Hall in 1968.
What is it like to sing in the Symphony Chorus? What are some of your other choral experiences?
I came to the Symphony Chorus as a charter member in September 1976. I had resigned from the Cosmopolitan Singers after our performance of Beethoven's Ninth under the Arch during the Bicentennial celebration. It was the first choir for which I had to audition. My previous choral experiences had prepared me for the deep discipline of music preparation, 3-hour rehearsals, dress codes, and decorum, which were part of the Symphony Chorus. There was a lot of pride associated with singing with this prestigious group, sitting in the best seats of the house behind the orchestra and getting to record various compositions.
The bass section is a great group of guys. Through the years, we have become a very close-knit section of the chorus with great camaraderie. We learn great nuances in the music through our chorus and orchestral directors. We have the time to pay attention to details that you cannot get in most church and civic choirs.
I was a charter member of the IN UNISON Chorus, too. I sang bass in the Legend Singers Choral Ensemble, Inc., for over 30 years (1966-1996) and was its director for more than 10 years. I have been the cantor at Temple Emanuel in St. Louis County for more than 43 years. I've even sung in The MUNY chorus in 6 shows.
What is it like to sing the bass part? What are some of the misconceptions about singing bass?
Singing bass is fun and foundational. This is the lowest part of a musical ensemble. The low vibrations that emerge from instruments or the voice are soothing. Low notes seem to permeate the spirit. Good basses can project low notes clearly and retain a nice upper range.
Some misconceptions about singing bass is that bass singers are rough and loud. Bass parts are ignored in many Gospel arrangements, and sometimes lumped in to sing the tenor line. Basses can sing with finesse. My high school choir director used to say, basses are “not to sing like they are football players on a field." Basses can put the icing on a cake, when some compositions include a low note in the ending or resolving musical chord and we come in for a landing with grace, clarity, sensitivity, and low vibes. It’s an incredible feeling when you fit into a great bass section and you support a rich choral sound including tenors, altos, and sopranos.
What other creative endeavors or hobbies do you have in addition to performing with the Symphony Chorus?
One of my hobbies is trains. I like to ride them and to drive them. I am a live steam locomotive engineer. I am a member and board officer of a miniature railroad called Wabash, Frisco and Pacific Association, located in Glencoe, Missouri, near Rockwood Reservation. I have been operating coal and oil-fired steam locomotives pulling passengers along the Meramec River on a 2-mile long round trip during the spring, summer, and fall for over 32 years. I have also handled the controls of the Pere Marquette #1225, a Berkshire style, coal-fired locomotive in Owosso, Michigan, as a fireman and engineer. Incidentally, this locomotive was the inspiration for the animated train of the movie, The Polar Express, starring Tom Hanks.
A second hobby is stained glass. I took up this craft in 2003 after I semi-retired as an electrical engineer. I have built and repaired windows and hanging glass pictures at my home shop. Some of my works are on display in my home, in Austria, The Wilson School, Covenant Seminary, and Temple Emanuel. Two framed works hang at the entrance to Temple Emanuel titled “Adonai Echod—The Lord Is One” and “Patriarchs and Pentateuch.”
An abbreviated version of this article appears in the March 2020 edition of Playbill.