St. Louis Symphony Chorus Director Amy Kaiser readies her final bow after 27 years
Amy Kaiser had a good thing going. The Brooklyn native had been a successful freelance conductor and chorus director in New York City’s busy European-classical music scene for 14 years. But in 1995, she leapt at the chance to move to Missouri and lead the St. Louis Symphony Chorus.
Her lengthy tenure at the helm of the chorus has seen the ensemble add important contemporary works to its repertoire, bolster its national profile and adapt to the artistic mission of four different musical directors.
“The chorus was in very good shape when I found it,” Kaiser said. “I'm very proud of the quality of singers that want to join us and stay with us. It brings me tremendous pride and joy when I see members of the orchestra, in a rehearsal, look up with admiration at something that the chorus is doing and applaud them.”
The last performance by the St. Louis Symphony Chorus under Kaiser’s directorship is May 1. Music Director Stéphane Denève will lead the orchestra and chorus through a program that includes works by Jessie Montgomery, Claude Debussy and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin asked Kaiser about the highlights of her time leading the chorus.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: Why did you make the move from New York to St. Louis?
Amy Kaiser: Well, there was a very conscious trade-off, I was doing a lot of performing as a conductor. I was conducting operas for the Metropolitan Opera Guild and other small companies, regional companies. I had my own community orchestra at the 92nd Street Y. I was working with professional choruses, volunteer choruses. I was doing some teaching. It was a huge smorgasbord of activity, but a lot of performance.
And you're at the center of an international musical world of New York City. So all that was wonderful. And then the trade-off was that I chose to leave being the head of the B team, my choruses in New York, for being a team player on the A team, which is the St. Louis Symphony. And I didn't really know what that would feel like.
Goodwin: How is this different?
Kaiser: You are responsible for preparing the chorus on a very high level, to be an equal partner with the orchestra. And then you hand it over to the music director or one of the amazing guest conductors who gets hired. And then my job is to sit up in the balcony, enjoy the performance, be very proud and take it in. So it’s a whole different kind of stress and a different kind of enjoyment. I liked it immediately.
Goodwin: How does the relationship with a musical director work? What do you do for each other?
Kaiser: The pressure is to make sure everybody is ready with whatever music the symphony or the music director wants to program, whether it’s Leonard Slatkin wanting to do Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish” symphony — notoriously challenging, in Hebrew — or David Robertson wanting to do four major works by John Adams that are very difficult, and which nobody has any familiarity with. And we did all of those things and much, much more.
Goodwin: When we’re not talking about working in a new language or learning a piece, what’s particularly difficult for you?
Kaiser: One has to repeat certain works over and over. They sell a lot of tickets. People love to hear them. And one can always find new things to enjoy. So Verdi’s Requiem, for instance, we’ve done with many conductors. But we did it with Rafael Frühbeck
de Burgos. He was dying of cancer. We didn't know that. But his performance of this with us, it was like he was taking us along to heaven with him. And a month later, he died. You don’t forget something like that. And that is the kind of high peak that makes it hard to come back to the same piece again.
“Messiah” with Bernard Labadie was such a high. It was thrilling. We’ve done it so many times, and yet those performances were on a whole different level. So then it becomes hard to continue recycling that.
Goodwin: Gustav Mahler’s second symphony is a familiar piece that really gives the chorus a chance to shine.
Kaiser: We’ve had many wonderful performances of Mahler 2, most recently with Stéphane Denève. I’ll put that with the highlights of all the high peaks. And we sang it from memory. That changes everything. We don’t do very many things by heart. Singers can just put down their scores, and they sing differently. They can fully watch the conductor. You just know the music better.
What I really remember from our Mahler with Stéphane was the ending. The sopranos have a high B flat. Full orchestra, big high note. And then the altos join them on a high note, and our singers were so thrilling on these high notes. And at the end they get to let all that loose with the full orchestra, and it was just hair-raising.
I believe most of the time we have fulfilled our mission, which is to be an equal partner with the St. Louis Symphony. And that is no small thing.
Goodwin: I’d like to ask you about another familiar piece that you devised an interpretation of that it sounds like you were happy with: Vivaldi’s "Gloria."
Kaiser: I believe it’s been overdone, or done to death. And it’s a charming piece. Our most recent performance of that was a highlight, and it really did have a beautiful sound.
Everybody was familiar with the piece. It was just very clean and light, and we were able to focus on details of phrasing and energy that are often neglected in other performances.
Goodwin: What were you able to do to make it richer?
Kaiser: It sounds different. We used several countertenors, male altos, in the tenor section, which was lovely. Already that’s a different sound.
Goodwin: At the time you said that as far as you’re concerned, that’s the best version of that piece you’ve heard.
Kaiser: There you go!
Goodwin: I loved to hear that. Artists should say that if that’s what you think.
Kaiser: Well, I am very proud of what the chorus has done over the years, how we’ve grown, the quality of singers that we’ve attracted. It’s just been a beautiful thing — a beautiful adventure for me.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin