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After A Decade With Cancer, Critic Gets Big Gift From Her Subjects: A New Choral Commission

Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Local choral organizations commissioned an anthem in her honor. | 2/7/20
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

“I was stunned. I was gobsmacked. I had never expected anything like this.”

That’s how Sarah Bryan Miller, classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, recalls feeling when she heard that British composer Judith Bingham would compose a new work in her honor.

Miller’s high praise for the piece never made it to print — and it won’t. The critic attended a private performance last September. This Sunday will be the first public performance of the choral anthem. And Miller won’t be writing the review.

How could she? The piece — “I Lift Up Mine Eyes To The Hills,” based on Psalm 121 — was commissioned and composed in her honor, a tribute by a consortium of local music groups led by the St. Louis Chamber Chorus. It’s deeply personal.

Miller was diagnosed with cancer about a decade ago.

“It started as breast cancer and has metastasized through the years, so it’s in my bones and it's in my liver,” Miller explained to St. Louis on the Air host Sarah Fenske. “I’m in a study through Siteman Cancer Center, and we’re going for as long as we can.”

Late last summer, doctors told Miller the cancer had mutated.

“I had been told not to make plans after about Thanksgiving,” she said.

The prospect of having the new commission in hand and Miller never hearing it didn’t sit well with Philip Barnes, artistic director of the St. Louis Chamber Chorus. He hastily organized September’s private performance.

Barnes had previously recruited the other St. Louis organizations to help pay for Bingham’s work. Also pitching in were the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Third Baptist Church, the Washington University Music Department and Congregation Shaare Emeth.

Those organizations instantly pledged their support, Barnes said.

“The characteristic of Bryan’s reviewing is that she actually knows what she’s talking about, and that’s unfortunately not common,” Barnes said of Miller, who goes by Bryan. “Choral singing is such a high standard in St. Louis. We know we’re going to be kept to and held to a really high standard to someone who knows what they’re talking about.”

Miller herself is a mezzo-soprano who previously sang professionally with Lyric Opera of Chicago. 

“There’s a saying, ‘Nobody loves a critic,’ and here was tangible evidence that that ain’t necessarily so,” she said. “I strive to err on the side of charity [and] diplomacy.”

That philosophy has endeared her to those who perform opera, classical and choral music.

Philip Barnes is the artistic director of the St. Louis Chamber Chorus and led a consortium of local organizations to commission an anthem in honor of Sarah Bryan Miller. | 2/7/20
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Philip Barnes is the artistic director of the St. Louis Chamber Chorus and led a consortium of local organizations to commission an anthem in honor of Sarah Bryan Miller.

“Honest criticism is incredibly rare, and Bryan has no agenda other than what’s the best for the music and the public,” Barnes said. “She’s a remarkable resource for this city, and we’ve been incredibly lucky to have her guidance.”

“I Lift Up Mine Eyes To The Hills” will premiere Sunday immediately before intermission. The program, Barnes said, is based on the theme of light.

Miller will be at the concert — as a fan. The lifelong Episcopalian said she hopes to let the piece wash over her.

“I don’t know what comes next, but I believe that something does come next, and I think it will be something positive,” Miller said. “We don’t know the details. Speculating on that is above my pay grade, but I just take comfort knowing that Jesus has our backs.”

Related Event

What: St. Louis Chamber Chorus Performs World Premiere of “I Lift Up Mine Eyes To The Hills”
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020
Where: Second Presbyterian Church, 4501 Westminster Place, St. Louis, MO 63108
More information

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.