April 30-May 1
Stephen Powell, baritone
Amy Kaiser, director
arr. Jannina Norpoth
Members of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus
Amy Kaiser, director
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Symphony No. 1, "A Sea Symphony" (1903)
A Song for All Seas, All Ships
On the Beach at Night, Alone
Scherzo: The Waves
Katie Van Kooten, soprano
Elliot Madore, baritone
St. Louis Symphony Chorus
Amy Kaiser, director
By Tim Munro
Amy Kaiser introduces her final program as Director of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus
I have been the St. Louis Symphony Chorus Directors for 27 years, but I've been conducting choruses for 53 years. I have loved it all, but these years with the SLSO have been the icing on the cake. I immediately connected with this place: I love the orchestra, I love Powell Hall.
Sirènes from Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes is harder for the chorus than it first appears. Stéphane wants a very light, almost innocent sound. It should also be very fluid, like water flowing. You should never be aware of people counting like mad, two against three.
Leaving the role of Chorus Director, I'm grieving. I think choral conducting is the best profession in the world—it is one of the great ways of making music with people. Ralph Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony seems to echo this well of grief. The symphony is like a farewell to life, and the poetry is so cosmic and deeply felt—it's a very profound piece. I had to figure out how to not be a puddle at every rehearsal!
I feel part of a continuum of choral conductors. Whether is was 20 years ago, 40 years ago, or 100 years ago, we are all in the same line. We are sharing the human voice, unamplified. We are sharing music that is timeless. The chorus might be among the very best inventions of the world.
[See below for Amy's thoughts on Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony.]
Born 1981, New York, New York
Jessie Montgomery wrote Starburst for the Sphinx Virtuosi. This ensemble grew out of the Sphinx Organizations, which supports young African American and Latinx string players.
In a "starburst" galaxy, new stars re created at a fast rate, changing the structure of the galaxy. Montgomery draws a parallel with Sphinx, which, in its support for young musical stars, is fast changing the galaxy of American classical music.
The music of Starburst, Montgomery writes, is "a play on imagery of rapidly changing musical colors. Exploring gestures are juxtaposed with gentle fleeting melodies in an attempt to create a multidimensional soundscape." The performance by the SLSO is an orchestration of her previously performed string version.
Montgomery is a violinist and composer whose music is heard across the country. "I'm interested in finding the intersection between different type of music," she has said. "I imagine that music is a meeting place at which all people can converse about their unique differences and common stories."
Recent works by Montgomery include a nonet inspired by The Great Migration, told from the perspective of her great-grandfather, William McCauley. She has also reimagined Scott Joplin's opera, Treemonisha.
First performance: This version: these concerts. String orchestra version: September 2012 in Miami, Florida, by The Sphinx Virtuosi First SLSO performance: October 15, 2020, Stéphane Denève conducting the string orchestra version
Most recent SLSO performance: February 20, 2022, Stephanie Childress conducting the string orchestra version in a Family Concert Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings Approximate duration: 10 minutes
Born August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died March 25, 1918, Paris, France
Clouds float, shift, gather, disperse. Blown by invisible forces—appearing slow, yet flying fast. White, gathering grey, gathering black, threatening storms.
In his thirties, Claude Debussy was drifting, listless, apathetic. He skirted the edge of poverty, taking odd jobs: conducting a choir of friends, teaching the odd piano lesson, playing music for seances. His music was known little outside a small circle of experimental artists.
Yet his music was shifting, becoming distinctive. Away from a grab-bag of influences, towards an entirely unique voice. In this, Debussy felt kinship with the American painter James McNeill Whistler.
In Whistler's paintings, landscapes are altered even distanced. Nature, made of shapes. Faces, made of colors. Debussy was transfixed by Whistler's series of paintings called Nocturnes, conjuring landscapes at night.
Debussy consciously evokes Whistler's luminous scenes in his own three Nocturnes. These orchestral studies, which took Debussy some seven years to complete, were intended to evoke "various impressions and the special effects of light."
The music of Nocturnes paints with a delicate, subtle brush. For instance, the music in Nuages barely rises above the most privately whispered piano, and the strings are divided into 14 independent parts, lending the music a glow, as if lit from within.
Debussy wrote about the specific inspiration for each of his Nocturnes:
1. Nuages. It is night on the Pont de Solférino [a footbridge in Paris], very late. A great stillness. I lean on the railing of the bridge. The Seine, without a ripple, like a tarnished mirror. Some clouds slowly pass through a moonless sky.
2. Fêtes. A vibrating atmosphere with sudden flashes of light. [In the middle,] a fantastical vision. In the Bois de Boulogne [a large public park in Paris], I see lights approaching. The horsemen of the Garde Républicaine approach, resplendent, the bugles sounding their fanfare. At last, all fades and grows distant.
3. Sirènes. The sea and its countless rhythms. Among the waves, lit by moonlight, is the mysterious song of the Sirens, as they laugh and eventually bid farewell.
Nocturned are not realistic pictures. Music, Debussy wrote, is "An imaginative emotional response to what is invisible in nature. Does measuring the height of the trees reveal the mystery of a forest? Isn't it actually the immeasurable depth of the forest which stimulates the imagination?"
First performance: October 27, 1901, in Paris, France, Camille Chevillard conducting First SLSO performance: March 3, 1911, Max Zach conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: March 15, 2015, David Robertson conducting
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, strings, soprano and alto chorus
Approximate duration: 25 minutes
A Sea Symphony
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Born October 12, 1872, Dawn Ampney, England
Died August 26, 1958, London England
At 20 years old, Ralph Vaughan Williams felt the shock of revelation. Sitting in his Cambridge University dorm room, the buttoned-up Englishman first read the uninhibited words of the American poet Walt Whitman.
Vaughan Williams was a tall, gentle aristocrat. A sensitive soul, a middling pianist and violinist, he found the craft of musical composition a challenge. As a young man, he withdrew as many works as he completed.
Whitman would move Vaughan Williams forward. In Victorian England, Whitman's cosmic energy, his mystical tone, his celebration of the everyday, his embrace of many belief systems lit a fire. A decade later, Whitman's words would inspire Vaughan Williams' first major work.
A Sea Symphony would take Vaughan Williams six years to complete. It would match Whitman for boldness, as the longest British symphony yet written. A true choral symphony, it combined a four-movement symphonic structure with virtuoso, stamina-testing writing for the chorus.
Vaughan Williams drew texts from Whitman's Leaves of Grass, a book full of references to the ocean. For Whitman, the ocean represented many things: freedom, passion, nostalgia, sensual pleasure, life, death. And America, a country shaped by early ocean voyages.
Whitman was preoccupied by the sea. "Hours, days, in my Long Island youth, I haunted the shores," wrote Whitman. "I was nearly all the time along the beach, listening to its horse murmur, and inhaling the bracing and welcoming breezes."
Sailing to enternity
Amy Kaiser shares her thoughts on each movement of A Sea Symphony:
The outer movements are massive: the first movement is 25 minutes, and the last movement is 30 minutes. The chorus gets very few breaks. There are two soloists who carry some of the music, which gives the chorus a bit of a breather, and allows Vaughan Williams to explore different vocal colors.
The opening is unforgettable: "Behold, the sea." The harmonies, the orchestration, the use of the chorus at the very opening—it's amazing. Here was Vaughan Williams, at the turn of the 20th century, using the chorus to start his first symphony. Beethoven wasn't so bold, Mahler wasn't so bold.
The slow second movement is breathtaking. We are on the beach at night, alone, experiencing a vision of the stars and the sky and the sea all around us. Most of the movement is for a smaller chorus. When we reach the last line of the poem, suddenly the enormity, the macrocosm becomes evident, and the sound expands to the full chorus.
The first movement is very fast. We are on a speedboat beating the waves. It is all rapid words and incredible energy. But the music is very tricky for the chorus: it's over so quickly that if you miss the boat it's hard to get back on!
The final movement is cosmic. "O my brace soul! O farther, farther sail!" Here, the water is time, is life. Sailing we go into the sea of eternity, into space, into the infinite of the universe. It's an astonishing thing.
First performance: October 12, 1910, by the Leeds Festival Chorus and Orchestra, U.K., the composer conducting First SLSO performance: May 4, 1972, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Walter Susskind conducting, with Mary Lou Henry, soprano; Gordon Corwin, baritone; and the Southeast Missouri State College Choir Most recent SLSO performance: May 9, 2010, Robert Spano conducting, with Christine Goerke, soprano; Brett Polegato, baritone; and the St. Louis Symphony Chorus
Instrumentation: solo soprano, solo baritone, 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, organ, strings, chorus Approximate duration: 63 minutes