ST. LOUIS — There’s a big change in store for what is still a hidden gem in St. Louis for most people: the world-renowned St. Louis Children’s Choirs.

Barbara Berner has directed the choirs for more than half of their 44-year history. She’s just announced next year her 25th will be her last. She broke the news to the children and their parents Thursday night.

The choirs have performed around the world: Europe, Asia, Australia, Carnegie Hall, and the White House. They are the official children’s choirs of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Powell Hall has always been sort of ‘home base’ in St. Louis.

“Whatever’s worth doing is worth doing well,” is a favorite adage of Berner’s. The close to 6,000 young singers she’s directed know it well.

“I’m sure there will be a few tears,” Berner said, looking ahead to her final days, which are still more than a year away. She plans to retire as artistic director in the Summer of 2023 at the conclusion of the 2022-2023 performance season.

For now, there is still much music to make and work to be done. The choirs are still recovering from a big “hit” suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their numbers shrank from about 450 to 290. Performances were “virtual”, online-only instead of before live audiences in concert halls and theaters. Berner put off retirement to navigate the choirs through the crisis.

They’re now performing “in-person” again. The number of singers is growing again. It’s up to 330. Berner is seeking to get that number back into the pre-pandemic 450-member range.

Auditions resume in May for children ages 6 to 18. There’s no experience required. You can find the details on the St. Louis Children’s Choirs website: https://www.slccsing.org/audition.

New performances with the symphony and new trips abroad are in the works. Yet, with all of those big performances, the countless special moments from practices and rehearsals are every bit as magical for Berner.

“Honestly, there are amazing moments every week in rehearsals where you glimpse the kind of excellence in artistry that young people are able to share,” she said. “Just seeing the look of satisfaction and joy in their eyes when they bring music to life and watching them grow.”

The choirs’ seven ensembles are comprised of students from more than 200 school districts and 85 zip codes in Missouri, Illinois, and now Oklahoma.

“She’s awesome,” Ella Maliszewski age 12, said of Mrs. Berner.

Ella travels from the Oklahoma City area to perform with the choirs.

“Living so far away it’s really special that I get to see how amazing the choir is,” she said.

She joins practices via Zoom. Her mom, Lexi, was in the choirs for Mrs. Berner’s 1st year. Lexi remembers the St. Louis group singing with a choir in Scotland. Life was never the same.

“We held hands, and we sang ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ To this day, it was just…amazing,” she said.

Lexi went on to become a vocal performance major in college. She still considers the St. Louis Children’s Choirs to be the best and most professional group of her life in music.

“I always tell them you have no idea what incredible gift you’re giving to the audience,” Berner said. “To lift their burdens, to comfort them, to inspire them, to make them laugh, to have them leave the concerts feeling refreshed and joyous. That’s really what this work is all about.”

A search committee has already begun the work of finding her replacement.

“It was my privilege to serve as artistic director,” she said. “The continuity of the mission of character development and musical excellence will be unchanged.”

She credits her success to supportive parents, the SLCC staff, donors, and above all, the children. The choirs have certainly sounded heavenly under Berner’s direction.