By Tim Munro
After 18 months of absence, voices gathered again. The IN UNISON Chorus is a big family, so when chorus rehearsals started again in early October, many members let their emotions show. Seeing their tears, director Kevin McBeth found himself choking up.
IN UNISON Chorus Director Kevin McBeth leads the first chorus rehearsal since March 2020 at Powell Hall
“It was a reminder that the people make the difference,” Kevin says over Zoom from his home. Over the past six months he had worked with the musicians of the SLSO, but this rehearsal was a homecoming with IN UNISON. “That hall is home to us. It is a regular part of our week, and a formative part of our life. It was great to say, ‘Welcome back.’”
“Singing is a tender and precious thing,” he adds. “For a singer, if the voice isn’t working, then they feel they as humans are lacking.” Building trust is key. “Coming back to IN UNISON, many members were concerned: ‘Do I still have what it takes?’ I want to help build their confidence. Confident singers make better music.”
Kevin is also rebuilding trust in the broader IN UNISON family. “We are connected to this wonderful, diverse musical community of singers and listeners. These are people whose paths don’t necessarily cross elsewhere. When they come to Gospel Christmas, they know it will be an incredible experience.”
And this year’s Gospel Christmas will feel special. “Christmas was taken away from us last year. While I have sat in exile, in my home, I’ve thought about what I would want to experience as a listener. Our guest artist, Oleta Adams, exemplifies what we try to present. She’s a beautiful spirit, bringing so much talent and joy.”
Gospel Christmas will of course feature many great gospel tunes. “We will celebrate fouding IN UNISON Chorus Director Robert Ray, who turned 75 last year,” says Kevin. “And we will perform songs by Moses Hogan. There will be great gospel music, no doubt.”
But Kevin really wants to underline the Christmas in Gospel Christmas. “Bringing the Christmas songs that people love, that people have missed—those will be centerstage. It will be a great, warm, and wonderful evening.”
The SLSO will also continue its beloved annual tradition of the Mercy Holiday Celebration, with performances at Lindenwood University in St. Charles (December 15–16) and at Powell Hall (December 17–19).
Roger, Stéphane, and Stefan
The SLSO’s New Year’s Eve concerts are known for their surprise repertoire. But this year, we can give a little tease. Amid the waltzing and singing and carousing, a new piece will be born. SLSO Principal Horn Roger Kaza will play a new concerto by Stefan Freund.
Roger Kaza (left) and Stefan Freund
The idea for the concerto came from Roger’s partner, Kate Klise. “She had a magazine put out by her local electric co-op. Giving it a quick look, I noticed a feature story about the 200th anniversary of Missouri statehood. Kate said, ‘It would be cool to commemorate that in a work with you as the soloist.’”
Roger resisted, but the idea had him thinking. “There are so many musical styles that have come through Missouri,” says Roger. “From Native American music, the canoe songs of fur traders, to Civil War tunes, to ragtime, to blues.”
He wrote to Music Director Stéphane Denève with the idea. Roger included an extra tidbit: the French horn was invented around the same time that the first European explorers, Marquette and Joliet, came down the Mississippi River in the 1670s. Stéphane was intrigued.
Roger was asked to recommend a composer. “I thought it should be a Missouri composer, and I thought of University of Missouri professor Stefan Freund. He has a very accessible style, a vernacular sound that is never boring. I was thrilled when he accepted the commission.”
Stefan began with a pre-statehood folksong. “It goes back to the 18th century,” says Roger, “when Missouri territory passed between the French and Spanish, and was eventually bought by the United States. The rivers during that early period were plied for furs by companies that employed voyageurs—who transported furs by canoe—from French Canada.”
Roger sent Stefan an album of songs sung by the voyageurs. “They would sing these songs nonstop while they canoed some 100 miles a day.” Stefan loved the song, “C’est l’aviron.” The chorus begins, “Pull on the oars as we glide along together.”
Stefan’s new concerto starts with an introduction using the voyageur tune. “It evokes the image of them canoeing at dawn,” says Roger. “Later, there is a full-blown swing section, and a section that Stefan calls ‘Funkgarian’ in tribute to my own Hungarian heritage.”
Roger says that the work represents Missouri. “It reminds us that we are all on a long journey together as a state,” says Roger. “Stefan avoided the temptation to write majestic, soaring Hollywood melodies for the horn. That wouldn’t represent Missouri. I think the piece brilliantly evokes who we are.”
The SLSO’s popular films in concert series begins on December 11 and 12, with The Muppet Christmas Carol. It continues in January with Pixar’s Up and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. On the podium for the first two of these events is the SLSO’s new Assistant Conductor, Stephanie Childress.
Stephanie Childress; The SLSO performs a movie score live
“Films have always played a very big part in my upbringing,” says Stephanie. “I vividly remember watching my first feature film, Flash Gordon, with my parents when I was 3 or 4. This was the beginning of a very long passion for cinema which continues to this day.”
Stephanie compares the effect of a film to that of a piece of music. “A great film speaks to me in the same way that a great piece does; it’s something I can come back to time and time again only to discover new facets and glean more from its meaning upon every viewing.”
The Muppet Christmas Carol will be the first time Stephanie has conducted an orchestra accompanying a film. Technical magic helps her stay on track. A screen next to her music stand displays colored symbols, each with a guide function, and she can hear the click of a metronome through an earbud.
For Stephanie, a great film score starts with the collaboration between composer and director. “My favorite film scores are those written by Nino Rota with his long-time collaborator, legendary director Federico Fellini. More recently, I absolutely loved Johnny Greenwood’s string-heavy score to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.”
“I’m really excited to delve into these beautiful scores,” she says. "It’s trying to create and share that magic with the audience.”
Tim Munro is the SLSO’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning
flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.