Reigning Kansas City Chorale Celebrates 40 Years of Excellence

Kansas City Choir singing in a church, watched by audience.

Charles Bruffy conducts the Kansas City Chorale at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Image courtesy of the Kansas City Chorale.

For a self-designated “Crown Town,” Kansas City has few opportunities to witness coronation ceremonies. But the Kansas City Chorale, with organist Elisa Bickers, offered us a hint of that pomp in a stirring performance Saturday. 

The performance was also the penultimate concert of the ensemble’s 40th season, celebrated with a near-capacity audience at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the evening’s Westminster Cathedral stand-in. 

As a multi-Grammy Award winning choir, the Chorale is the region’s reigning vocal ensemble, and the finesse of this performance indicated why. Founded as a student group in 1981 by Jonathan Griffiths and evolving into a professional group aiming to present high-level choral music in the region and beyond, the Chorale has been led by Charles Bruffy since 1988. 

Charles Bruffy conducts the Kansas City Chorale. Image courtesy of the Kansas City Chorale.

Prior to the start of the concert, executive director Don Loncasty read allowed a proclamation by Laura Kelly, governor of the state of Kansas, which announced that May 20th, the date of the Chorale’s last concert this season, is designated State Day of Singing, due in part to the Kansas City Chorale “bringing performances into Kansas communities that challenge our social conscience, inspiring generations of singers to pursue and be consumers of the arts, while offering our communities a wealth of new music that enrich our lives.” 

“God Save the King: Music of the British Coronation” was a run down of the stages of a coronation, with music selected from centuries of English rule, all from English (or adopted English) composers. Most of the music came from the ceremonies of Elizabeth II (in 1953) and George VI (in 1936) but there were a few stalwarts from previous centuries, like George Frederich Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” from 1727 and, with its rousing line of “God Save the King!”, used in every coronation since. 

A coronation is more of a religious ceremony than a state one, with all the opulence and tedium of a hugely important event wherein many important people must be involved. With this “good bits” version, the audience received a taste of those stages. 

Short descriptions in the program helped place the pieces in context and, with “Zadok the Priest,” you could almost imagine Handel as he prepared the piece, timing out the organ introduction to match the somber stride of the monarch as they approached the throne. 

It was this contrast of jubilation and contemplation that guided the program, from the opening organ rumble of Sir Hubert Parry’s “I Was Glad” and the rich, stately pace of Sir Herbert Howells’ “Behold, O God Our Defender,” written for the occasion of Elizabeth II’s coronation, dark and slow-moving, like a heavy velvet gown. 

Also from Elizabeth II were two works by Ralph Vaughan Williams which highlighted some of the Chorale’s sparkling individual voices, with soprano Lindsay Lang as soloist for “O Taste and See” and a quartet featured in Vaughan Williams’ setting of “Sanctus & Benedictus,” with its otherworldly wavering line and bright twining section. Later in the program they included a setting of the Sanctus and Benedictus by William Byrd from the late 16th century, the high voices glinting in the texture. 

Organist Elisa Bickers accepting applause. Image courtesy of the Kansas City Chorale.

Henry Purcell’s “Trumpet Tune” was a showcase for Bickers and a break for the choir, its familiar and lively tune eliciting a smile from Bickers as she dug into the work’s final flourishes. Bickers, throughout the performance, gave a strong and nuanced reading of the works in support of the voice. 

One of the livelier works on the program was Handel’s “Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened,” written for George II. Handel, knowing full well that it was to accompany the enthronement, gave the work a dramatic, almost circus-y quality. It certainly spiced up the moment that was, in essence, someone just sitting down on a fancy chair. 

Following “Rejoice in the Lord Always,” arranged by John Redford in the 16th century and used during Elizabeth II’s coronation, Bruffy invited the alums in the audience to join the choir in singing Gustav Holst’s “I Vow to Thee My Country” (featuring his popular “Jupiter” melody, originally written for the orchestral suite “The Planets”). (The program also listed the 271 members through the years.) The audience, too, was invited to “pretend they were at the Proms,” to stand and join in during the second verse of the Holst, as well as Parry’s 1916 setting of “Jerusalem.” 

The chorale ended the program with the short and sweet, but immensely powerful, “Confortare,” by Sir George Dyson, also written for the occasion of Elizabeth II’s coronation. 

For their encore, the ensemble stepped away from the theme of English coronation music for a more timely selection, in support of the Ukrainian people during the attack on their homeland and sovereignty. John Rutter, also an English composer, wrote a setting of a Ukrainian prayer, which he has made available for performances worldwide free of charge. Bruffy said, “When you put beauty into the world, when you put love into the world, even in a tiny little way, it matters.” 

Rutter gives the Ukrainian text a pleading quality, repeating “Good Lord, protect Ukraine” with urgency, and the choir presented it with heartfelt gravity.

These concerts are also the last hurrah for long time member Matthew Gladden, who encored the tongue-twisting solo for Michael McGlynn’s version of “Fionnghuala,” in Scots Gaelic. (His uncle, Bryan Taylor, also received a shout out for his 30 years of singing with the ensemble.) 

There’s one more chance to catch this program, when they officially end the 40th season. It was a demonstration of the thoughtfulness and excellence that the ensemble has taken as their mission for decades and as they move forward. 

Reviewed Saturday May 14. Kansas City Chorale performs again Friday May 20 7:30pm at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, KS.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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