Thirty years ago, Bruce Vantine decided he wanted to take the power of narrative choral music to a new level.
“I had seen how effective [these] programs could be, and very often they’ve been focused on Christmas,” Vantine, who was on the University of Missouri-St. Louis music faculty at the time, recalled on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. “But I got the idea of doing a Thanksgiving type of a program with a social-justice message – so that we could touch people’s hearts.”
So began his Cornerstone Chorale and Brass, a St. Louis-based nonprofit organization that continues to spread its message of compassion through music, narration and drama each year during tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
In 1993, Vantine left his university post to focus solely on Cornerstone, a 29-member ensemble that has since presented a total of 463 performances in churches near and far.
“I think that it nurtures our emotions and nurtures our compassion – empathy, maybe, is a good word for that,” Vantine said of the group’s particular combination of music and message. “That’s really what Cornerstone is about: We are about helping people empathize with the situation of so many people around our country – and the world.”
He joined host Don Marsh for a discussion on the eve of the ensemble’s nearly month-long tour, which includes an Oct. 23 stop in St. Louis. Also participating in the conversation was soprano Talia Aull, who’s marking her fifth tour with Cornerstone, as well as alto Cindy Vantine, Bruce Vantine’s wife.
Aull, who now lives and works in Atlanta, was a performer based in New York City when she first auditioned for Cornerstone.
“[I] submitted for it and booked it, and I was so excited – not only to be singing [but also] when I came to the tour for the first time and saw what the program truly was,” the classically trained soprano said, adding that the music “really catch[es] you in ways that you want to challenge yourself but might be uncomfortable doing on your own.”
“So often [people are] so touched, and it’s just so unusual [to them] … they have not been exposed to a program like that, where you get the music and the narration and the encouragement to reach out to those disenfranchised, those marginalized, people not like you,” Aull explained, “or just like you – in a different situation. And I get to see their reaction to the challenge within themselves, and it is always positive.”
Cindy Vantine also emphasized the encouraging responses from those who attend the performances.
“I get to talk with a lot of audience members afterwards who are very enthusiastic in thanking us for the ministry,” she said, “for the work that we’re doing and for the beautiful music.”
Formally trained in voice and organ herself, Vantine said she was supportive of her husband’s shift years ago from directing university groups to devoting more of his time to Cornerstone so that he could be “freer to do the program that he really wanted to do.”
The on-air conversation included a portion of a song that Bruce Vantine wrote, one that has become something of a theme song for the ensemble: “Go Now and Love One Another.”
“I used it first with Cornerstone after the 9/11 events in 2001,” he explained just before Marsh cued the selection. “I had written the melody some years before with a slightly different text, but I felt [when] we were on tour in 2001 right after 9/11 that we needed a sense of healing, and this text, ‘Go Now and Love One Another,’ made sense to me.
“It’s kind of a ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ kind of a melody that sticks with you. But what I like to do is take a counter-melody, which is the theme that we’re doing on a particular year – could be a hymn tune, could be a folk melody, could be something that I write – but that carries the more specific message for that year. And I like to take that theme and set it against ‘Go Now and Love One Another.’ And that’s where I have employed Talia quite often, because at the end of the program, she does this soaring high soprano above the melody as it goes on.”
What: Cornerstone Chorale and Brass Performance
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Where: Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church (9450 Clayton Rd., St. Louis, MO 63124)
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.