Since its inaugural season in 1993, the American Kantorei, the performing group of Bach at the Sem, has presented about 100 concerts of the music of premier Lutheran composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, as well as music of Schütz, Buxtehude, Mendelssohn and other Lutheran composers. Performances take place in the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus at Concordia Seminary. Annual seasons generally include three or four choral concerts — featuring major works, cantatas and motets — and one concert focused primarily on organ works of Bach, as well as other composers.
History of Bach at the Sem
The Calov Bible Commentary from the library of Lutheran composer J.S. Bach
The three-volume Bible commentary compiled by 17th-century Lutheran theologian, Abraham Calov, and once in the library of Johann Sebastian Bach has been in the Concordia Seminary library collection since it was given to the Seminary by the Reichle family of Frankenmuth, Mich., in the 1930s. The volumes are the only known, i.e., identified, books from the library of J.S. Bach. Calov is both editor and author of the commentary, using as he does both Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible and primarily Luther’s comments on the text, adding his own commentary when no material was available in Luther’s works. The work was printed in 1681-82. Some 25 marginal annotations of Bach, along with underlining and other marginal markings, are evidence of the composer’s use of the volumes. Careful analysis of the handwriting, as well as technical analysis of the ink done in the 1980s, established the authenticity of Bach’s ownership.
The American Kantorei, its pre-history and pre-cursor
The American Kantorei has its origins in the former Concordia Cantata Chorus associated with Concordia Seminary in Clayton, Mo. Following its beginning in 1955 with a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem, the Concordia Cantata Chorus soon developed into a well-known ensemble dedicated to the music of Bach, Handel, Buxtehude, Schein, Schütz, Praetorius, Monteverdi, Gabrieli, Hillert, Wienhorst, Willan, Britten, Vaughan Williams and others. Specializing in liturgical music for the worship services of the Seminary, the chorus also performed in concerts and toured extensively. The high quality of performance resulted in invitations from the National Guild of Organists and its regional divisions, from the National Association of Musicologists, from the Bicentennial of Orders of Sisters of Mercy and the Precious Blood of Jesus in South and North America, and for weeklong appearances at conventions and festivals in 1960 (Dallas), 1964 (San Antonio) and 1972 (Chicago and Kansas City). The Cantata Chorus also represented the United States at the 1966 International Heinrich Schütz Festival in Delft, Holland. The Dutch government issued the invitation and sponsored the trip financially. Several days were devoted to recording sessions of old and new music in the studios of the Christian Radio Broadcasting and Recording Studios in Hilversum. In connection with the Holland appearances, the Concordia Cantata Chorus sang concerts in London, St. John’s College, Cambridge and five cities in Germany. The recordings made at Hilversum of music by Bach, Schütz, Schein, Gabrieli, Distler, Micheelsen, Bender and Wienhorst were used for broadcast extensively in northern Europe and South Africa.
The Reborn American Kantorei
Following a hiatus of some 20 years, the American Kantorei was resurrected in 1993 at the behest of its major sponsors, Robert and Lori Duesenberg and Richard and Phyllis Duesenberg. Maestro Robert Bergt, following conducting and teaching appointments at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and Valparaiso University, had been serving as the music director at the Musashino Academia Musicae in Tokyo. He was engaged initially to return periodically to conduct concerts, the preparation for which was done by assistant conductor, Dr. Jeral Becker, a member of the original Kantorei. The concerts soon became popularly known as Bach at the Sem. In 1995, Bergt, with his continuo-player wife, Joan, returned to the United States and became the artist-in-residence at Concordia Seminary, his major responsibility being the planning and conducting of Bach at the Sem concerts, usually four or five a season.
From 1993 until Bergt’s death in July 2011, the American Kantorei performed all the major vocal and choral works of J.S. Bach, many of them several times: the Passions, Masses, oratorios, motets and more than 50 cantatas. Other composers have also been featured, including Buxtehude, Schütz, Mendelssohn and Beethoven.
In addition to the choral and instrumental works, Bach at the Sem organist, Dennis Bergin, and several guest organists have performed more than 90 organ works of J.S. Bach, as well as those of other composers.
Historical note on the performing group known as the “Kantorei” by Robert Bergt
Kantorei (pron. kahn – tor – eye) is a term originally applied to a music ensemble comprising musicians who both sang in a choir and also played one or more of the developing Renaissance and Baroque instruments: the string family of the violin, viola, gamba, violone; flutes (recorders, baroque flute, traverse flute); double reeds (oboe, oboes d’amore and da caccia); natural trumpets and horns; and percussion, especially the timpani, as well as timbrel, finger bells, etc. The Kantorei originated in the High (late) Renaissance (ca. Luther’s time and a little before) and into the early and middle Baroque periods in Germany, 1600-1675. Kantorei development took place in larger cities where an Academy (boys’ school, first grade through the second year of college) was sponsored, such as at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig and the Kreuzkirche in Dresden, as well as in chapels of royal personages. A Schola Cantorum (School for/of Singers) was the counterpart of the Kantorei in Italian, Spanish, French and other Romance regions.
Both a cappella and orchestrally accompanied settings appeared, for example by the two Gabrielis at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Heinrich Schütz, a Saxon composer, studied with them and carried rich, dramatic and well-informed music back to Saxony in his service at the Weisenfels Chapel, near Dresden. Other composers, such as Lotti, Vulpius, Schein, Buxtehude and Praetorius provided music at the highest level for the church from the Middle Baroque Period (late 17th – early 18th century) to the end of the Late Baroque (Handel’s death in 1759).
Schools with Kantorei were usually associated with a university or church. It was the business of the Kantorei to provide suitable music for the services of the church and at events sponsored by the church, university, noblemen and city council. The numbers of singers and musicians were usually small by today’s standards: 10-20 singers and a number of instrumentalists as required by the score and/or situation, ranging from a few to as many as 24 and more singers, the number of instruments depending on the acoustics and size of the church, hall or room.
Rev. Robert Bergt Memorial
St. Louis musician and theologian Rev. Robert Bergt, whose work and reputation were known around the world, died July 26, 2011, at the age of 81. He was music director and conductor of the American Kantorei and artist-in-residence at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He was survived by his wife of 57 years, Joan, an accomplished musician; four children, Jonathan, Philip (Iris), Marsha (Peter) and Joel (Mieko); and six grandchildren. Bergt combined his passion for music with his deep theological understanding. He founded the American Kantorei in 1968, the first group of its kind in the United States. The Kantorei is a highly skilled choral and instrumental group that has performed in a variety of settings in St. Louis and beyond. Since 1993, the American Kantorei, has performed regular concerts in the Bach at the Sem series in the chapel at Concordia Seminary in Clayton, Mo. The popular series of concerts featured the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and other sacred music composers and was open to the public at no charge. Also, many of these concerts were broadcast on KFUO-FM.
Bergt, recognized with numerous awards through the years, was a 1952 graduate of Concordia Seminary. He served Lutheran congregations in Illinois and Missouri and was music director, conductor and instructor at Concordia Seminary, Southern Illinois University, Valparaiso University and the Musashino Academia Musicae in Tokyo, Japan, during his lengthy career. As early as 1949 he was chosen to be concertmaster and assistant conductor of the St. Louis Philharmonic.
Bergt once wrote, “I have learned from teaching and praying the church’s liturgy that doxology and Gospel proclamation are the purpose of my life.” Kathy Lawton Brown, a member of the American Kantorei for many years, said, “All of us are saddened by this news, but grateful beyond words to have had the inestimable privilege of making heavenly music with Bob … music that will resound within our hearts forever.”
Dr. Dale A. Meyer, president of Concordia Seminary, called Bergt a “singularly talented and devoted person who inspired so many with his abilities and with his strong Christian faith. He devoted his career to the musical glorification of God. We will always remember with thanksgiving his spirit, his outstanding abilities and the powerful legacy he leaves.”
It is the purpose and function of Bach at the Sem to profess the Christian faith through the proclamation of the Church’s rich heritage of sacred and classical music, especially music of Lutheran composer, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Dr. Maurice Boyer
Dr. Maurice Boyer, who guest conducted the February 2014 Bach at the Sem concert, now serves as music director for the American Kantorei/Bach at the Sem. Boyer is associate professor of music at Concordia University Chicago, River Forest, Ill., where he conducts the chamber orchestra and Laudate, a women’s choir, and teaches all levels of ear training. Although born in the United States, he began his musical training (piano, voice and solfège) in Aix-en-Provence, France, where he lived until the age of 18. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree in sacred music, with piano as his principal instrument, and a Master of Music degree in choral conducting from Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, N.J., where he also studied theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He holds a Doctor of Musical Arts in orchestral conducting from the University of Maryland, College Park. His principal conducting teachers have been Joseph Flummerfelt, Kenneth Kiesler and James Ross.
Boyer also is artistic director of Aestas Consort of Chicago, the Heritage Chorale of Oak Park and assistant conductor of the Symphony of Oak Park River Forest. He has served as guest conductor of the Chicago Choral Artists and guest chorus master for Chicago’s Music of the Baroque. Additionally, he has been chorus master of the New Jersey State Opera and director of music at several churches.
Boyer follows longtime Bach at the Sem music director, the Rev. Robert Bergt (1993-2011), and a series of guest conductors. He remains in his position at Concordia Chicago with released time to devote to his responsibilities in directing the American Kantorei and the Bach at the Sem series. Dr. Jeral Becker serves as assistant conductor of the Kantorei.
Violinist Wanda Becker has served as concertmaster of the American Kantorei in its Bach at the Sem series since its inception. She received her early musical training in her native Canada, where she was a pupil of Emanuel Horch and Sonia Eckhardt-Gramatté. She began her professional career at age 18 as a member of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. During that time she was presented in recitals on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Becker holds a long association with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO), first as a winner of the Young Artist Competition, which resulted in a solo appearance with the orchestra, and subsequently as a member of the SLSO. She also spent three years at the Nordwestdeutsche Musikakademie in Detmold, Germany, studying with Tibor Varga and performing concerts in France, Norway, Switzerland and Germany as a member of the Varga Chamber Orchestra.
Becker has participated in chamber music festivals in Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Sarasota, Fla.; and Steamboat Springs, Colo. She has been a member of the “Rarely Performed Music” series, Trio Capriccio and Quartet Seraphin, distinguished for its “Meet the Composer” concerts presented at local venues and in area schools. Becker has served as an adjunct instructor at Stephens College, Greenville College and Saint Louis University. Her chamber music performances include appearances in the Shepley Music series at Christ Church Cathedral and as a frequent participant in and founding member of “Music at First Church.” She also serves as concertmaster of the Union Avenue Opera Company.
Katharine Lawton Brown, principal alto
Katharine Lawton Brown’s singing career began in musical theatre and extends to opera, oratorio, art song, standards and jazz. With professional experience at St. Louis Muny and the Florida Symphony Orchestra, Brown became principal contralto and soloist with the Air Force Band’s “Singing Sergeants” under the renowned conductor, Col. Arnald D. Gabriel.
Brown has performed extensively throughout the U.S., Canada and China, has appeared as soloist on international radio and TV, and is much in demand as a guest artist with prominent choral, orchestral and chamber ensembles. Her appearances include the Tulsa Oratorio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Folger and 20th Century Consorts of Washington, D.C., and the Arianna String Quartet. She premiered Claude Baker’s “Sleepers Awake” with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and has performed regularly with members of that orchestra on the Bach at the Sem series. Since 1993, she has served as principal contralto and soloist with the American Kantorei. From broadcasts of those concerts and her familiar presence as an announcer, her voice is well-known to those who were listeners of KFUO-FM Classic 99.
Holding a Bachelor of Arts degree from Rollins College in Florida and her MM from James Madison University in Virginia, Brown has taught at colleges and universities in Virginia, Georgia, Missouri and Illinois. She joined the music faculty of Greenville College in 2007, serving as interim director of vocal studies in 2010-11.
Jeffrey Heyl, principal bass
Dr. Jeffrey Heyl, a native of St. Louis, holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music, the Hartt School of Music and the University of Iowa. He has served in musical positions at several area institutions, including Lindenwood University, Urshan College, Covenant Seminary, St. Charles Community College, Missouri Baptist University, Bluefield College, Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church and Green Trails United Methodist Church, where he is currently director of music and Worship. Heyl has sung extensively in opera, oratorio, recital and music theater, including leading roles in I Pagliacci, Cavallaria Rusticana, Susannah, Hello Out There, Die Fledermaus, There and Back, and Amahl and the Night Visitors. He is presently a member of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus and has sung solos with conductors David Robertson and Nicholas McGegan, as well as the part of Raven for Robert Kapilow’s Summer Sun, Winter Moon with the composer conducting. In 2009 he accomplished a long cherished goal of performing Schubert’s Die Winterreise. He has been soloist with the Masterworks Chorale, with the Bach Society of St. Louis in Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols and Bach’s St. John Passion, and in Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem with Missouri Baptist University, the University of Missouri, St Louis, and Webster Groves Presbyterian Church. Heyl also sang in Carmina Burana at Webster University, a program of Mahler and Beethoven with the St. Louis Philharmonic and an opera program with the St. Charles Brio concert series. Other recent performances include the title role in Mendelssohn’s Elijah with Parkway North High School, Orff’s Carmina Burana with University of Missouri, St Louis at the Touhill Center, Handel’s Messiah with Greenville College and the Midwest premiere of Mark Hayes’ Requiem. Heyl has sung with the American Kantorei since 2012.
Scott Kennebeck, principal tenor
Scott Kennebeck, a native of St. Louis, has been singing since the age of 8, beginning his career in the Cathedral of St. Louis Pontifical Boys Choir under Dr. Mario Salvador. He earned a bachelor’s degree in fine and performing arts and music and theatre from Saint Louis University (SLU) and has studied voice with Dr. Jeral Becker at SLU and Christine Armistead at Washington University. Since 1993 Kennebeck has been the tenor section leader for the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis Choir and the Archdiocesan Choir of St. Louis. He is also cantor for the Cathedral Parish, as well as for major Archdiocesan events. He was a cantor/soloist for more than 100,000 in attendance and a worldwide television broadcast audience at the Papal Mass in St. Louis in 1999 and for 30,000 in attendance at the Eucharistic Congress in St. Louis in 2001. He has toured as soloist throughout the United States, Italy, England, Germany and Austria. His performances include Verdi’s Requiem in Rome; Hector Berlioz’s Te Deum in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis; and numerous performances of Handel’s Messiah and other oratorios, including The Seven Last Words of Christ by Dubois at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in St. Louis as part of their 150th Anniversary celebration. Kennebeck also has performed with Union Avenue Opera and the St. Louis Muny. In addition to vocal performance, Kennebeck is the executive director of St. Louis Cathedral Concerts.
Dr. Emily Truckenbrod, principal soprano
Dr. Emily Truckenbrod has appeared in recital, concerts and opera throughout the United States, as well as in Italy, France, Austria, Honduras and Tanzania, East Africa. Her voice has been described by reviewers as “having sweet clarity” that “personifies the joy of the music.” On the opera stage, she has appeared in roles ranging from the Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute) to Oscar (Un Ballo di Maschera). Equally comfortable with oratorio and orchestral works, Truckenbrod has appeared as soloist with the Tulsa Oratorio Chorus, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the Wichita Symphony, the Canterbury Choral Society and Oklahoma City Philharmonic, the Quad Cities Symphony Orchestra, the Richmond Symphony, The Handel Oratorio Society, the American Kantorei, the LaFosse Baroque Ensemble, Concert Choir of Northeast Connecticut and the Northshore Choral Society, among others.
Truckenbrod holds the Doctor of Musical Arts and a master’s degree from the University of Iowa and a Bachelor of Music from Northern Illinois University. She also has completed studies at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria; at the Eastman School of Music; and as an intern with the National Association of Teachers of Singing Intern Program. Truckenbrod is currently the director of vocal studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and serves as the faculty adviser for the St. Louis Chapter of Student National Association of Singing.
Previous Interim & Guest Conductors
Interim Conductor: Jeral Becker, Ph.D.
Guest Conductor: Dr. Maurice Boyer
Guest Conductor: Martin Dicke
Guest Conductor: Scott M. Hyslop
Guest Conductor: Andrew Megill
Guest Conductor: Dale F. Voelker
Guest Conductor: Jeffrey S. Wilson