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Cathedral Concerts: Music reverberates under the magnificent dome

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 18, 2009 - The St. Louis Cathedral Concerts series will have nine offerings, most of them choral, but with the program's usual variety of instrumental and organ performances. The events will take place at the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica, and appropriately for that space, as Scott Kennebeck, director of operations explains, "all of the programs are sacred in nature." This year's nine groups range from such series favorites as Chanticleer and the Vienna Boys Choir to newcomers like the Canadian Brass and the State Radio Symphony Orchestra of Moscow. The series was established in 1992.

The season premieres Friday, Oct. 23 with a performance by the English chamber choir Tenebrae. Its name derives from the Anglican Holy Week service during which lights are gradually extinguished foretelling Christ's Good Friday death. The connection? The group sings by candlelight.

Kennebeck said, "We plan to have the Cathedral lit by candles, creating a mystical atmosphere." Tenebrae usually performs with instrumentalists but for this performance will sing a cappella. Its singers are drawn from such historic British religious venues as St. Paul's Cathedral, King's College Cambridge and Westminster Abbey, as well as from opera houses Covent Garden and the English National Opera.

Nigel Short leads the ensemble of mixed voices; his goal in founding the group was to bring together "the passionate sounds of a Cathedral choir with the precision" of groups like the King's Singers. (He should know; he was one.) The program includes portions of a commissioned piece by Jody Talbot, "Path of Miracles," as well as the premiere of a work by Short, "Song for St. Alban's." When they were last here in 2003, Kennebeck said, the experience was "thrilling," thanks not only to the choir's distinctive sound, but its ability to turn the Cathedral's reverberant space to advantage.

The season offers other highlights. The weekend after Tenebrae's performance, the series will host the Boston Camerata on All Saints' Day, Nov. 1. This group is also at home under the large dome and will be joined by the Archdiocesan Choir, as well as the "Cathedral Basilica Schola," a select group of singers drawn from the Cathedral's choir. Both are under the guidance of  Cathedral Basilica's Music Director John Romeri. A busy man, he's also the founder and both executive and artistic director for the entire Cathedral Concerts Series. Also participating in the affair will be the Greenville College choir from across the river.

A celebration of the musical community on this side of the river, and a further sign of Romeri's imaginative outreach, comes with the Canadian Brass concert in February. Special recognition and an invitation to participate will go to those "high school brass students from across" the state who have been selected for the Missouri All-State Band and Orchestra. They'll be treated to a master class in afternoon with members of the visiting Canadians. That evening they get to play on stage, an opportunity Kennebeck terms "unbelievable."

Another treat: the annual Christmas at the Cathedral concert, now in its fifth year, will duplicate itself. In addition to its usual Friday evening performance, Dec. 4, a second presentation will be on the afternoon of St. Nicholas Day, Sunday, Dec. 6. Both will be led by Romeri, and several Archdiocesan choirs will participate.

As for the season's sole orchestral performance, Kennebeck proudly brags that "Cathedral Concerts is the city's ... only presenter of touring orchestras." "We have good relations with various management companies who book such groups." The Basilica has in recent years hosted ensembles from Dublin and St. Petersburg, as well as London's renowned Academy of St. Martin's in the Fields. The State Radio Symphony Orchestra from Moscow will be the third Russian group to assemble and tune up at Lindell and Newstead.

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