- St. Louis Symphony Chorus
- IN UNISON Chorus
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.
The Chorus performs repertoire in many styles and languages, including beloved works like G.F. Handel’s Messiah, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, requiems by Johannes Brahms, Giuseppe Verdi, and W.A. Mozart, Joseph Haydn’s Creation, and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. 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 including the Harry PotterTM movies, music of John Williams, and Final Fantasy.
Since being named SLSO Music Director in 2017, Stéphane Denève has taken a special interest in the Chorus, leading the ensemble in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, Sergei Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, and Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony. In the 2022/2023 season, Denève will lead the Chorus in works by Francis Poulenc, Gustav Holst, and Hector Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust.
In his 13 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: Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces (in Russian), Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi, Béla Bartók’s Cantata Profana (in Hungarian), Samuel Barber’s Prayers of Kierkegaard, Michael Tippett’s A Child of our Time, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, György Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds and the premiere of Meredith Monk’s Weave. Many of David Robertson’s innovative programs included works for a cappella chorus.
The Chorus has major roles in concert operas performed by the SLSO: Beethoven’s Fidelio, Verdi’s Aida, Richard Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, and Britten’s Peter Grimes, which was performed at Carnegie Hall on the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth.
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 Prokofiev’s 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.
Past Chorus Directors
Amy Kaiser, Chorus Director, 1995-2022
Director of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus from 1995 to 2022, Amy Kaiser built a reputation as one of the country’s leading choral directors. She prepared the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in most of the core choral-orchestral repertoire, including G.F. Handel’s Messiah, Franz Schubert’s Mass in E-flat, Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria, and sacred works by Joseph Haydn and W.A. Mozart. She conducted the chorus and orchestra on many occasion, and also led Young People’s Concerts. Guest conductor for the Berkshire Choral Festival in Massachusetts, Santa Fe, and at Canterbury Cathedral, and Music Director of the Dessoff Choirs in New York for 12 seasons, she led many performances of major works at Lincoln Center.
Kaiser regularly led pre-concert conversation for the SLSO and presented popular classes for the Symphony Lecture Series and Opera Theatre of St. Louis. A former faculty member at Manhattan School of Music and The Mannes College of Music, she was a Fulbright Fellow at Oxford University and holds a degree in musicology from Columbia University. A graduate of Smith College, she was awarded the Smith College Medal for outstanding professional achievement.
Richard Ashburner, Chorus Manager, 1989-2011
Richard Ashburner 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 20s, Ashburner 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.
Ashburner 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.
Thomas Peck, Chorus Director, 1976-1994
Invited 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.”
The St. Louis Symphony Chorus is underwritten in part by
IN UNISON Chorus History
Created in 1994, the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus began as a one-time effort for the performance of Hannibal Peterson’s African Portraits. Due to the overwhelmingly positive response, the chorus has become a permanent part of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s artistic family. The chorus performs as part of the SLSO’s season in the annual Lift Every Voice: Black History Month Celebration, as well as in Gospel Christmas and community concerts in various locations around the area.
The chorus’ annual holiday concert, “A Gospel Christmas,” has become a St. Louis holiday tradition. The SLSO and chorus have performed to packed houses with renowned singers such as Take 6, Blind Boys of Alabama, and Oleta Adams.
The Black History Month celebration, Lift Every Voice, features works by African-American composers, arrangers and performers. In February 2018, Oleta Adams returned to the stage singing her hit “Get Here” and other crowd favorites. The chorus and SLSO celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” speech in February 2013 with a performance of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings, with narration of the speech provided by Wintley Phipps. In February 2012, the SLSO and chorus welcomed St. Louis’ own, Jenifer Lewis, to the Powell Hall stage. In February 2019, the chorus gave the world premiere performance of Isaac Cates’ “It’s Working.”
The 2018 spring community concert was held at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church and guest conducted by former Music Director David Robertson in one of his final concerts with the SLSO. The chorus has presented well-known arrangers and composers in this concert, such as Rollo Dilworth, André Thomas, Moses Hogan, Brazeal Dennard and Jeffery Ames. There is no fee to attend this concert, but a free-will offering is accepted for the chorus’ scholarship fund which supports African-American students from the St. Louis community who wish to pursue a music-related college degree.
To celebrate the 15th Anniversary of the chorus, the SLSO commissioned a composition from composer Rollo Dilworth. This work, Freedom’s Plow, was performed on the Choral Spectacular! subscription concert in October 2009. The IN UNISON Chorus performed Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus on the same concert.
The Chorus has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, Live at Powell Hall and classical concerts, Summerfest (Classics in the Loop), and made its Carnegie Hall debut in 1998. Members of the chorus sang at Carnegie Hall in June 2018, for the debut of Mark Hayes’ Spirit Suite. Chorus members sang in front of more than 15,000 people in September 2019 to mark the start of Stéphane Denève’s tenure as Music Director.
The IN UNISON Chorus enjoys a close and special relationship with the IN UNISON Church Program of the SLSO and with the network of IN UNISON churches and coordinators. The IN UNISON program, which began with five churches in 1992, quickly established itself as the model for the SLSO’s community programs. Orchestra musicians visit member churches offering music during services, special event concerts and educational events. IN UNISON program church members are eligible for discounted Symphony concerts, tuition discounts to area music camps and music scholarships for college students majoring in music and other benefits.
Robert Ray, founding director, 1995-2010
Dr. Robert J. Ray, composer, conductor, and clinician, is Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and in May 2003, received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Vincennes University.
As a pianist, he has performed as a soloist with the Seoul Philharmonic, the Champaign-Urbana Symphony and others. As accompanist, he was privileged to have worked with the outstanding and legendary singers Robert McFerrin and Dr. William Warfield.
Ray’s compositions are known nationally and internationally. The Gospel Mass, Gospel Magnificat, and He Never Failed Me Yet are regularly performed in Europe, Asia, South Africa, and South America. He has traveled extensively throughout the world conducting his music. In April 2002, Ray returned again to Carnegie Hall as guest conductor to perform his Gospel Mass with chorus and orchestra. In February 2008, his Gospel Mass was performed with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus.
After 15 seasons as sole director of the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus, Ray retired in January 2010.