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How the St. Louis Chamber Chorus found a way to sing again, masks and all

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St. Louis Chamber Chorus
The St. Louis Chamber Chorus followed COVID safety protocols during a recent rehearsal.

After a 20-month hiatus triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, the St. Louis Chamber Chorus returns this Sunday. The baroque-inflected concert is titled, “We Are The Music Makers — Music of Monteverdi, Vivaldi and Melissa Dunphy.”

“It’s a scary amount of time,” said artistic director Philip Barnes about the long pause between performances. “Even in the Black Death, people kept singing. This has been the most peculiar sort of interruption to what we love to do, to what makes us tick.”

Singing has been especially risky during this pandemic, as attention-grabbing stories about a choir rehearsal in Skagit County, Washington, made clear last year. In one of the U.S.’s first superspreading events, 52 of the 61 people at rehearsal that March 2020 became infected with the virus. Two died.

“I can't believe that there isn't a director out there who thinks about that. In fact, some people, I think, have just given up,” Barnes said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air.

Barnes said he never considered that option.

“I love to sing and I love to encourage people to sing. And it seems that we have to work our way through that somehow, and technology and more information would help us. And that, of course, is what has happened,” he said.

With greater understanding of how the virus spreads and of effective mitigation strategies, the chorus narrowed in on its greatest tool to stop the spread of the virus: vaccinations. All of the approximately 50 singers who will perform on Sunday are fully vaccinated. Only excluded were a few people who couldn’t get their shot due to autoimmune disorders.

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Alex Heuer
Philip Barnes shows off the plastic mold that allows any mask to become suitable for singing.

To help ensure safety, the choir also moved its rehearsals to a bigger venue. Members also sing with masks on — utilizing a special device the organization bought for every singer. The plastic frame can be used with any mask, pulling it away from the lips and nostrils even as it maintains a seal closing in spittle.

“The idea is that you can sing and not feel as if you're smothering yourself,” Barnes said.

Wearing masks can affect the sound, Barnes acknowledged, but he believes it’s in a good way.

“We remember with such fondness dear Sarah Bryan Miller, the departed critic of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the one thing that Bryan Miller used to always say to me is, ‘You be careful about those screechy sopranos.’

“She would have loved this because what I noticed — and it's not what I was expecting — I noticed that the very top frequency, the overtones, which Bryan used to think sometimes verged on screeching. … She would think that that's gone. And what I thought would go would be the low bass frequencies, and they haven't gone.”

Miller died last November after a long battle with cancer. Barnes revealed that her estate included a bequest to the St. Louis Chamber Chorus for the commission of a major piece in her memory.

Listen: The St. Louis Chamber Chorus Makes A Triumphant Return This Sunday

“Knowing what she espoused, which was young artists, emerging composers, women composers,” explained Barnes, “we have actually commissioned somebody that fits that bill.”

A piece composed by London-based composer Kerensa Briggs is now slated for performance in February 2023.

Sunday’s concert at Washington University’s 560 Music Center features several motets by Claudio Monteverdi and Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria.” Also on the program is the premiere of a piece by Australian American composer Melissa Dunphy.

“There's just nothing like a live performance. It doesn't matter how good the recording is. It's just never going to replace the thrill of hearing the music come alive before your very ears,” Barnes said.

Related Event

What: St. Louis Chamber Chorus performs “We Are The Music Makers — Music of Monteverdi, Vivaldi and Melissa Dunphy”
When: 3 p.m. Oct. 3
Where: Washington University’s 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity Ave., St. Louis, MO 63130
More information

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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