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St. Louis Symphony Chorus History

Founded in 1976 by Music Director Jerzy Semkow, the St. Louis Symphony Chorus is an equal partner with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in performing choral orchestral music at the highest artistic level. Directed by Amy Kaiser since 1995, the chorus is primarily a volunteer ensemble with a core of paid singers. Singers of all ages and varied backgrounds come from throughout the St. Louis region to rehearse together on Tuesday nights and perform with the orchestra four to six times a year.

Beethoven Mass in C soloists
Soloists from the chorus performed Beethoven Mass in C. Johanna Nordhorn, Kate Reimann, David Robertson, Keith Boyer, Amy Kaiser, Jeffrey Heyl.

The chorus performs repertoire in many styles and languages. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Handel’s Messiah, Orff’s Carmina Burana, Requiems by Brahms, Verdi, and Mozart, Haydn’s Creation, Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 are programmed regularly. Less frequently performed works by major composers are also highlights of each season. The chorus also sings on Live at Powell Hall events in programs such as the Harry PotterTM movies, Music of John Williams, and Final Fantasy.

Carnegie Hall performance 2017
Bows with the composer at Carnegie Hall following John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, April 2017.

In his thirteen seasons as Music Director (2005-2018) David Robertson expanded the chorus’ repertoire with exciting and challenging programs. Works by John Adams figured prominently, with On the Transmigration of Souls, Harmonium, El Niño, and The Gospel According to the Other Mary.  Other 20th century highlights: Stravinsky’s Les Noces (in Russian), Weill’s The Flight of Lindbergh, Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi, Bartók’s Cantata Profana (in Hungarian), Barber’s Prayers of Kierkegaard, Tippett’s A Child of our Time, Britten’s War Requiem, Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds and the premiere of Meredith Monk’s Weave

David Robertson and Amy Kaiser
David Robertson and Amy Kaiser: Verdi’s Quattro Pezzi Sacri

Many of David Robertson’s innovative programs included works for a cappella chorus.  Three pieces from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers led to Messiaen’s L’Ascension, Prokofiev Violin Concerto No.1 and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.  Bruckner’s motet Christus factus est opened a program with Act III of Berg’s Wozzeck and Beethoven Symphony No. 9.   Stravinsky’s Three Sacred Choruses (in Church Slavonic) were sandwiched between Stravinsky’s Symphony No. 1 and Alexander Nevsky.  A small ensemble from the chorus sang Josquin des Prez’ Lament on the Death of Ockeghem along with Kurtag’s Stele and Mozart’s Requiem. 

Robertson at a chorus rehearsal
Robertson at a chorus rehearsal

Robertson led the chorus in many much-loved works by Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Brahms, Bruckner, Verdi, Mahler, Ravel, Prokofiev, Orff and John Williams.  The chorus also had major roles in four operas conducted by Robertson:  Beethoven’s Fidelio, Verdi’s Aida, Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer and Britten’s Peter Grimes, which was performed at Carnegie Hall on the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth.

Thomas Peck and 1978 Symphony Chorus
Thomas Peck and the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, 1978

The chorus has also performed at the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica, the Fox Theater, Siteman Cancer Center, Queeny Park, and Busch Memorial Stadium, singing the National Anthem in the 1982 World Series. On tour, the full chorus and the women of the chorus have performed a total of eleven programs at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The recording of Alexander Nevsky, nominated for a Grammy award, is one of 12 commercial recordings featuring the chorus. The chorus’ 2011 performance of Orff's Carmina burana was broadcast live on PBS and featured in an award-winning advertisement for the symphony. In St. Louis and beyond, the St. Louis Symphony Chorus is recognized for its vocal and artistic quality.

Thomas Peck, Chorus Director, 1976-1994

Thomas PeckInvited by Jerzy Semkow to become the first director of the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus, Thomas Peck was the assistant to Margaret Hillis, director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. In 1962  he founded the 100 voice all-professional Grant Park Festival Chorus. From 1975-78 he was director of the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus. He directed the St. Louis Symphony Chorus from its start in 1976 until his death in 1994 at age 56.

In June 1994, St. Louis Symphony Associate Conductor David Loebel paid tribute to Peck: "To work with Tom Peck was to feel magic. I know of no musician who believed more passionately than Tom did in music's ineffable power to transmit knowledge, to heal pain, to create ecstasy, to change our lives. Waiting in the wings to take his bow after the chorus' performances with the orchestra, he always looked like someone who had been transported to another world… I recall him saying after a particularly moving concert how tragic it was that so many people pass through life untouched by music's message. It was Tom's life's work to spread the word, and it is as much for his role as our artistic conscience as for his considerable skill that we will miss him”

Richard Ashburner, Chorus Manager, 1989-2011

Richard AshburnerRichard joined the tenor section of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus in 1981 and was appointed Chorus Manager in 1989.  While his position as Chorus Manager was part-time, there was nothing part-time about his commitment and devotion to the chorus.  All communications and administrative matters were consistently handled with meticulous attention to detail, creativity and humor.

In his early twenties Richard had performed as Rodolfo in La Bohème, Ferrando in Così fan Tutte and Albert in Albert Herring before becoming a professional speech language pathologist. For many years he enjoyed a full time career as an administrator for the  Special School District of St. Louis where he trained teachers to include children with special needs in standard classrooms.  He also helped train many musicians in the orchestra to give more effective presentations for children in schools.

Richard died after a brief illness on March 18, 2011 at age 57. In his 22 years as Manager he helped build and nurture the St. Louis Symphony Chorus and touched the lives of his fellow singers;  he will long be remembered with great love and respect.

Potter Singers
Singers wear their Hogwarts house colors!

Gathering at stage door
Gathering at stage door on 'black shirt Sunday'

Ligeti Clocks and Clouds
Singers meet the challenge of Ligeti's Clocks and Clouds