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Requiem fit for a worthy son-in-law receives premiere Sunday

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 24, 2012 - The late Sanford N. McDonnell was celebrated for his work in the aerospace industry and for his conviction that developing character in the young men and women of the world was as important a task as any we face as a society. He worked hard at both of these occupations, both as an engineer and an executive of his family’s enormous business and in the challenge of working to strengthen the moral fiber of young Americans.

He was a man of energy and vision and a person of extraordinary courage, too. He was ill, off and on, for several years, but he always seemed to bounce back. Even in the times when his physical condition was less than robust, his voice on the telephone was clear and resonant with optimism.

Or so it seemed to me. Frankly, when he did succumb to pancreatic cancer on March 19 at the age of 89, I was surprised. He seemed indomitable. There is a lesson there, about things immutable and about loss and what happens in and around the chasms great losses open up.

Mr. McDonnell’s death, which came around the time of the deaths of two other venerable and vital St. Louisans -- Oliver Langenberg and Robert Orchard -- is cause for civic sorrow and reflection and frankly, cause for worry.  Who is going to step forward to take their places at the table of leadership and generosity in St. Louis?

Following in these major footsteps, something we must take forward as an obligation is support of the artistic institutions of St. Louis. Music was high on Sandy McDonnell’s cultural register. His marriage to the former Priscilla Robb helped to cultivate his taste. Her father, the late John Donald Robb, had a career as a lawyer but left law behind in the early 1940s and followed his first love, music, to New Mexico. In 1941, at the age of 49, and took the helm of music department at the University of New Mexico, then served as dean of the university’s College of Fine Arts.

In the early ‘40s, his daughter, Priscilla, called Pris, was skiing at what is now called Ski Santa Fe. She noticed a young fellow with the Princeton Tiger on his parka and painted on his skis. She introduced herself. The young man was Sanford McDonnell, who was working as an engineer on the Manhattan Project nearby up at Los Alamos. The ski basin meeting proved durable. Pris and Sandy McDonnell were married in 1946.

Robb (1982-1989) was a prodigious composer. He wrote symphonies, concertos, sonatas, chamber music, two operas, made arrangements of folk songs, composed electronic music and even wrote a musical comedy. Like Mozart, Robb’s last work was a requiem. Unlike Mozart, Robb’s was completed -- when he was 93. He dedicated it to his mother and father and eight brothers and sisters.

He did not hear it performed, however. This Sunday at 3 p.m., the Bach Society of St. Louis will give Robb's “Requiem” its premiere at Ladue Chapel. It is to be performed by the Bach Society Chorus and  pianist Sandra Geary and four young Bach Society artists -- Stephanie Ball, Erin Haupt, Joshua Stanton and Tom Sitzler.

Bach Society artistic director A. Dennis Sparger spoke enthusiastically of the “Requiem” and of the other major work on Sunday’s program, a “Te Deum” composed by St. Louisan Stephen Mager. The “Te Deum” was written for organ and chorus.

Sparger said Robb's “Requiem” is “quite lyrical and expressive,” and accessible too. He said the style of it is reminiscent of music of the 1920s and ‘30s and is traditional in following the form of the Latin mass. It was scored for a huge orchestra, he noted.

To have performed it as written for orchestra “would have been formidably expensive,” Sparger said. Listeners on Sunday will hear a reduction of the orchestral score for piano, which was edited and arranged by James Bratcher. He is a member of the Robb Musical Trust board, which provided a performance score of the piece for the Bach Society.

Stephen Mager has been composing music for the Bach Society since 1996, Sparger said, and he described Mager as an accomplished composer of music for performance on the organ. Mager provided the program notes for Sunday’s concert and in them said his “Te Deum” “was written to complement the acoustics at Ladue Chapel and to fully utilize the 3 manual, 59 rank Bosch/Simmer organ.”

Sparger said the piece is complex, with a triumphant sound. ”It is music,” he said, that is “energetic and shows the skill of the composer.” He characterized it as having a contemporary flavor and as sophisticated and accessible. Organist David Erwin will join soloists Darcie Johnson and Erica Rosebrock and the Bach Society Chorus for the performance of the Mager piece.

The concert is to be dedicated to the McDonnell’s memory.  His widow said she was overjoyed that the “Requiem” is to be performed here. “Nothing could be nicer.”

And, Pris McDonnell said, “I’ve been to a couple of rehearsals. It is beautiful.”

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.