Pablo Puig, Staff Writer
The University of Missouri–St. Louis’ department of music held their final event of 2019’s spring semester April 29 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center. The ensemble concert titled “Masterworks” brought together UMSL’s choir and orchestra for a rare collaboration honoring the centennial anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth.
Although two other composers were part of the presentation, Bernstein’s works served as its bookends.
The choir started with his choral composition “Make Our Garden Grow,” from his operetta “Candide.” This piece had its own bookends. First, a misspoken opening message and then the near fall of James Henry, UMSL’s choir director since 2004. Despite the rocky start, the piece was promptly redeemed by the choir’s resounding performance.
Once the applause faded, Henry turned to address the audience. Briefly praising Bernstein, he steadied himself before recounting his past in music at the university level, focusing on the presence and support of Donna Pyron, accompanist and key figure of the choir. Pyron, who came to UMSL nearly 15 years ago on Henry’s recommendation, was revealed to be retiring, with this being her final accompaniment. “There’s no better piece of music that we can sing because Donna Pyron has always made our garden grow,” said Henry, before requesting a standing ovation that both audience and choir enthusiastically provided.
Having bid farewell to a longtime member, the choir departed, marking a midpoint to the concert with the entry of UMSL’s symphony orchestra, led by Darwin Aquino, internationally recognized composer.
The orchestra performed Bedřich Smetana’s “No. 2 Vltava,” known in English as “The Moldau,” and “Finale: Allegro Guerriero,” fourth movement of Max Bruch’s “Scottish Phantasy.” For the latter piece, Theo Bockhorst, a prominent young musician native to St. Louis, joined the orchestra as a solo violinist. These renditions were simply outstanding, with the orchestra’s harmonious efforts enhanced by Aquino’s exuberance as a conductor and Bockhorst’s talent as a soloist.
After an intermission, both choir and orchestra came onto the stage for the concert’s finale, another of Bernstein’s most renowned compositions, “Chichester Psalms.” The three-movement piece uses psalms in the original Hebrew, harnessing scripture to both serene and intense effect. This combined effort of UMSL’s main musical groups was so well-received by the audience that their applause was preemptive, coming between each movement rather than at the piece’s conclusion.
“For the university, it was extremely important for the choir and orchestra to come together like this,” said Aquino, who mingled with the audience afterward, explaining that the performance’s last line best sums up its theme: “together in unity.” Indeed, it is evident that a sense of solidarity pervaded the event:
Pyron’s honoring, the masterful rendering of long-gone composers, the collaboration between choir and orchestra, and even the relationship between UMSL’s artists and their audience.
More than a showcase of musical brilliance, “Masterworks” was a testament to music’s capacity to unite people across vast differences of time, space and language. Though Pyron’s departure can be considered the closing of a chapter for the choir, I instead see it as a prologue. Whatever comes next, I am confident UMSL’s department of music will adapt and thrive, continuing to enrich the university’s population.