By Doyle Armbrust
When the world feels chaotic, I find myself often tilting toward cynicism. Then, out of the blue, a pair of conversations revitalizes my hope for the future of music and the future of communities coming together. The St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus is an expected element of the SLSO season by now for you, but take it from an outsider...this is one extraordinary ensemble.
I’ve interviewed Renée Fleming, Arnold Steinhardt, and the like, but the time I spent talking with IN UNISON Chorus director Kevin McBeth and veteran chorus member Harry Moppins has quickly moved into my Top 10 interview experiences as a writer. My most sincere congratulations to the Symphony, IN UNISON Chorus, and you, the audience, during this 25th anniversary season.
Doyle Armbrust: When you landed this job in 2011, what went through your head? Kevin McBeth: It was a combination of “that’s unexpected,” to “this is a full-circle moment for me.” When I applied, I was thinking this was a long shot because, after all, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is one of the greatest orchestras in the world. What made it a full-circle moment was that when I moved to St. Louis 24 years ago, I wanted to be involved in the community while working full-time in church music, and I auditioned and became a member of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus where I sang for seven seasons and did some assistant conducting.
DA: That makes my heart happy, when a career comes together as though it was meant to be. That’s rare. KM: It is, and it’s wonderful.
DA: So, you get the gig, and there’s only been one director before you. What was your under- standing of the culture of the IN UNISON Chorus when you arrived to take the lead?
KM: I was fortunate enough to be friends with [IN UNISON Chorus founder] Robert Ray already, so there was already a fondness and admiration for what he had done. And, of course, I had heard the IN UNISON Chorus in concert on many occasions as an audience member. There was a feel- ing, when Robert retired, that there was a risk of the whole chorus disappearing because of how unique this ensemble is. For the music director, there is the gospel component, but there is also getting up in front of a world-class orchestra. Those are two sets of skills that don’t often intersect.
DA: What strikes me most about the IN UNISON Chorus is that it is an integral part of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, rather than resembling the “tacked-on” quality of community build- ing I see in large music institutions elsewhere around the country. KM: This was originally a group put together for a one-time event, but with the enthusiasm following that concert – and the talent of the director and the chorus – the orchestra decided, very wisely, that this is something we can’t let go. Powell Hall is just a stone’s throw from dozens of historic black churches. This is a match made in the neighborhood, with singers originally living in the shadow of that hall. It was a wonderful opportunity for everybody. I think what the orchestra has discovered over the course of our 25 years is that not only is the chorus a viable part of the Symphony family, but we are helping grow the Symphony’s footprint. Concerts like Boyz II Men...
DA: ...wait, Boyz II Men? I’m dating myself here, but you are speaking my language!
KM: I had the great privilege in June of conducting their show, and it gets back to the point of styles that you don’t necessarily imagine go together converging. They had some excellent orches- tral arrangements made for a show in Japan, and then someone smartly realized that this could fill a niche that is wide open. The experience – from the crowd to on stage – it was wonderful! They said afterwards, “We never want to perform these tunes again without an orchestra!”
DA: You’re making me jealous. So, do you think you can confidently say that the IN UNISON Chorus is making the traditional classical music experience more inclusive? KM: Absolutely. What makes us different is that we are not just brought in for Black History Month or concerts like that. We are a part of the SLSO family, and after speaking with our mar- keting folks, we haven’t found any resident ensemble like this anywhere else in the country. An orchestra may do a “gospel goes classical” type show, but these are invited or pick-up choruses. It’s an honor for us to be part of the symphony, and good for them, too.
DA: You came up with gospel music and classical music in parallel. As you bring these approaches to music together with the IN UNISON Chorus, do you find that there’s some navigation necessary between them? KM: I think I’m lucky. When Robert Ray founded the group, he had a much more difficult time because there just wasn’t the repertoire avail- able. The IN UNISON Chorus came along at just the right time. Symphonic gospel music began to take hold in this country, and we’ve been the beneficiaries of that. Take for instance the Christmas concert we had with Take 6. What’s really cool about it is that Take 6 is known for brilliant a cappella mu- sic. Now we have these crazy, stupid-won- derful orchestrations of their music that are contributing to this relatively new genre.
So these conductors, that I stand on the shoulders of, they had to wait while this genre was being created. One of the things I’m trying to champion in my position is encouraging all the many dozens of com- posers and arrangers we work with to keep expanding this genre.
DA: Maybe I’m misremembering, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across someone who didn’t like gospel music. Is there something about this music that reaches people, regard- less of their walk of life? Is it actually impossi- ble to not have a great time listening to it?
KM: At its core, it’s the fact that gospel music reaches deep into the soul of a person and resonates in a singular way. People have described gospel music as “healing,” and I think that it is. But good singing technique is good singing technique. When you hear the virtuosity of someone like Yolanda Adams, it’s no different than the abilities needed to sing the flourishes in Handel’s Messiah.
DA: Anniversaries are a time for reflection, but also a time to look to the future. What’s your vision for the IN UNISON Chorus going forward?
KM: Finding the opportunity for the chorus to tour is one of my major goals, and I also know that in Kansas City and Flint, Michigan, orchestras are also looking to start programs similar to ours. Being able to tour and share what we do in these places would be wonderful. We’d also love to do more recording and are waiting for that perfect storm to make that happen. What we have to do is continue to tell the story of IN UNISON.
DIRECTOR KEVIN MCBETH’S TOP 5 IN UNISON CHORUS MOMENTS
1) “My first rehearsal with the chorus! Great, exciting and a welcoming group.” 2) “My first concert in 2011. After just seven rehearsals, I made my debut and it was
televised, as well!” 3) “Gospel/Jazz artist Oleta Adams made a special trip to St. Louis ahead of her concert with
us. She led the chorus in a rehearsal that was full of laughter and lots of tears. The chorus
felt a very close connection to her!” 4) “Working with Jennifer Holliday was a thrill! Her flight was cancelled due to a snow
storm, and we thought she wasn’t going to make it. We even added and rehearsed
additional repertoire just in case. She did make it and we had a great show.”
5) “For Gospel Christmas 2017, we had a special chorus member singing with us.
Former music director David Robertson sang with the bass section for the concert.”
This article appeared in the February 2019 issue of Playbill.