By Tim Munro
It’s a Saturday night at Powell Hall. The stage is filled to the brim with the combined forces of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. From the stage comes a roar of sound. But one important musician is nowhere to be found on stage. Instead, sitting up in the balcony to hear the results of her hard work is Amy Kaiser, Director of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus.
Kaiser has worked with the 120-strong Chorus for a quarter of a century, but her joy in the job and pride in her chorus is undimmed. Does she feel like a proud parent, watching a child’s triumph? “I suppose you could put it that way!” Kaiser says. “The level of the Chorus is
so fine I thoroughly enjoy sitting up there and listening.”
I was curious about the role of a Chorus Director, about how Kaiser gets the Chorus from page to stage.
First, Kaiser works with the rest of the artistic team to program repertoire. “The musicians
in the Chorus are so good,” Kaiser says, “that they really want a challenge.” And they have challenges ahead this spring: four programs in four different languages, full of new (and familiar) repertoire and new (and familiar) conductors.
As the season approaches, Kaiser and Susan Patterson, Manager of Choral Activities, start
the wheels moving: doing the important (and never-ending) job of recruiting and auditioning
new singers, sorting a million tiny details, scheduling rehearsals.
“The musicians are so good that they really want a challenge."
How much rehearsal time does each program typically receive? “There is no typical,” says
Kaiser. For difficult and unfamiliar works, she and Patterson do research: they ask other groups how much time they have devoted to a particular piece, whether this amount of time was enough. For Bernstein’s Kaddish, this spring’s musical Mt. Everest, six three-hour rehearsals were scheduled. Will it be enough? “I hope so,” she says, laughing. “We will find out in April!”
Kaiser came to her SLSO job after 25 years as a freelance conductor. She grew up in New York and had lived and worked on the East Coast for 40 years.
Kaiser says the musical adjustment was relatively easy, since she found the new job fascinating. In New York, she had directed smaller choral orchestral ensembles in Baroque and Renaissance music. “Part of the reason I wanted to do this work with the SLSO is how great the repertoire is, and how much I did not know.”
The biggest adjustment was cultural. “I was thoroughly an East Coast person,” says Kaiser.
“I had to get used to things like having a house and driving a car everywhere. And learning
how to garden,” she laughs. “I never knew what mulch was!”
Although all Chorus members are strong sight readers, for challenging works, Kaiser creates
digital files to help them prepare at home. “They work with diction files that our coach has recorded. For the Kaddish one of our chorus members, a cantor, recorded the language.”
And Kaiser often produces what she calls “learning files.” If the work has complex rhythms,
if the music is angular and dissonant, she will record each vocal part at the piano, counting out loud as she plays each part.
The day of the first rehearsal arrives. Kaiser is clear, unambiguous about her demands:
Chorus members must have done their homework in advance, must know which pitches they
are singing. “We do not teach notes in rehearsal.”
Her goal at this first rehearsal is “to get through all the music, to give a sense of the meaning
and drama of this particular piece: to discover which are the beautiful and moving parts, which are the challenging and dramatic parts.”
Kaiser speaks carefully, in full sentences. Her memory for detail is airtight, as is her enthusiasm for the work of her Chorus, which she speaks of like a beloved family member: There is rarely an “I”; it is almost always “we.” She and her Chorus are a team.
Kaiser does not conduct the performance of each chorus program. That job falls to the
Music Director or to that week’s guest conductor. Kaiser rarely has contact with these conductors before the performance week. “They are busy international travelers, and unless there is a pressing question, it’s better to prepare the work as I would prepare it for myself.”
Each conductor has one rehearsal with the chorus and piano the week of the performance.
“Performance week is exciting,” says Kaiser. This is where the rubber hits the road, when some changes to balance, text, and shaping may occur.
Kaiser recalls her first Chorus and piano rehearsal with Music Director Designate Stéphane
Denève in 2011. They were working on Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé.
“I thought, ‘Oh the text is all ooo and aaah.’ That’s not so complicated. But then Stéphane
came in, and he had 50 different ways of coloring those vowels. His imagination, his use of
vocal sound—it is remarkable in a conductor who is not a singer himself.”
Conductors’ understanding of the voice can never be taken as a given. “You need someone
who has an interest in the meaning of text and how the vocal music deepens the meaning of
the text. If they love voices, then we know it.”
All of a sudden, Kaiser’s voice starts to dance and she steers the topic to memorizing music,
what is also known as “going off-book.”
“No conductors require us to memorize music,” she says, but she and the Chorus have
experimented with memorizing sections from large works. “And it is revelatory. What is
astonishing and powerful is how different it sounds when everybody sings from memory. The
communication with the audience is much more intense.”
So next time you’re in Powell Hall, with stage filled to the brim, scan the faces of the
Chorus: Kaiser’s team, Kaiser’s musical family. They just might look back at you.