By Eric Dundon
In the past ten years, Kevin McBeth has seen and done a lot with the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus. The extraordinary performances. The amazing guest artists. The trips and special events. And the countless memories.
As the SLSO looks back on Kevin’s first decade with the IN UNISON Chorus, there is much cause for celebration.
The IN UNISON Chorus specializes in the interpretation, performance, and preservation of the music of African American and African cultures. The 26-year-old chorus—a 120+-voice ensemble formed in 1994 and featured multiple times each season—is part of the SLSO’s IN UNISON program, a multi-pronged effort to connect the orchestra with the St. Louis region through partnerships with African American churches, a mentorship program for young musicians, and an academic support arm.
McBeth is just the second director of the chorus, following in the footsteps of Founding Director Dr. Robert Ray.
Watch the 2019 Lift Every Voice: Celebrating Black History Month concert for a limited time here.
While Ray laid the foundation for the success of the chorus, McBeth has guided the tremendous artistic growth of the pioneering ensemble.
McBeth directs the IN UNISON Chorus in three performances each season: the annual Gospel Christmas concert in December and the Lift Every Voice: Celebrating Black History Month concert in February, both with the SLSO; and a free community concert of choral music each spring. He leads the chorus in a wide range of repertoire, from traditional African American spirituals and sacred music, to secular tunes and covers of popular songs. Broadening the repertoire of the chorus, McBeth has introduced foreign language compositions, leading the chorus in works sung in Swahili and Latin. Throughout his tenure, McBeth has further developed the chorus’ loyal and diverse audience.
“The initial thrill of making music on the stage at Powell Hall is still with me ten years later,” McBeth said. “The IN UNISON Chorus rises to every challenge and the members are passionate about the music we offer.”
That passion is evident in the face of chorus members at each performance, smiling faces that remind audiences of the power of music.
McBeth has emphasized the expansion of the chorus repertoire and has led the chorus in new works, most recently leading the world premiere of Isaac Cates’ “It’s Working” in February 2019.
“We continue to try to grow the music profile of the ensemble,” he said. “I am intentionally looking for new voices to lift up.”
Celebrating diverse voices is a cornerstone of the IN UNISON Chorus, but Kevin’s contributions to the SLSO institution are felt broadly.
“Every corner of our institution has been deeply touched by Kevin’s talent and dedication, and we look forward to our continued artistic partnership and friendship,” said SLSO President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard.
In addition to IN UNISON performances, McBeth also leads orchestral and special performances throughout the year. He has been on the podium for collaborations with several high-profile guest artists, including the R&B/jazz singer Ledisi, Broadway stars Leslie Odom, Jr., and Sutton Foster, and recording artists Boyz II Men and Amos Lee. He also conducted collaborative concerts of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra and its alumni in honor of the YO’s 50th anniversary in 2020, and the Joining Forces program—a free community concert where SLSO musicians share the stage with area military musicians. In the community, McBeth has led the orchestra in performances under the Gateway Arch at Fair St. Louis and at Manchester United Methodist Church, where he also serves as Director of Music and Worship.
“I think most importantly right now, I’m tremendously thankful and tremendously grateful, first of all to the symphony itself—the orchestra has been unbelievably kind to me—and to the rest of my colleagues,” McBeth said.
He said he felt blessed to work with tremendously talent vocalists alongside the IN UNISON Chorus, including Oleta Adams, Patti Austin, Kennedy Holmes, Marlissa Hudson, Wintley Phipps, and Denise Thimes.
From 2011-2019, McBeth also directed the Holiday Festival Chorus, a unique ensemble of young singers from across the St. Louis region that performed with the SLSO at its annual Holiday Celebration concerts. McBeth also engages with the SLSO’s educational programming and has led Tiny Tunes concerts with hundreds of Pre-K students on stage at Powell Hall.
Chorus members and colleagues describe Kevin as easy to get along with and praise his ability to make everyone feel comfortable. Chorus members come from a variety of backgrounds and experience levels, yet he is able to bring them together for a common purpose through music.
“Learning from Kevin was very easy,” said IN UNISON Chorus soprano Jennifer Kelley. “He has a way of making you feel comfortable with your sound, your abilities, no matter what level you’re at. He meets everybody where they are.”
His collegial spirit and passion for music has elevated the chorus during the past ten years.
“Under Kevin’s leadership, the IN UNISON Chorus has seen tremendous artistic growth,” said chorus Manager Michelle Byrd. “He has positioned the chorus on an amazing path for the future.”
To mark McBeth’s anniversary and celebrate the IN UNISON Chorus, the SLSO is providing free access to several performances, including:
· Sunday, February 7, 5:00pm CDT: A rebroadcast of the annual Lift Every Voice: Celebrating Black History Month concert from 2019 on Nine PBS with McBeth leading the SLSO, IN UNISON Chorus, and guest artists, vocalists Jermaine Smith and Denise Thimes, including the world premiere of Isaac Cates’ “It’s Working.” Nine PBS will also post this rebroadcast on its website to stream for a limited time.
· Saturday, February 20, 8:00pm CDT, 90.7 KMWU St. Louis Public Radio: A rebroadcast of the October 2009 concert featuring the classical season debut of the IN UNISON Chorus, singing Rollo Dilworth’s Freedom’s Plow and Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time in collaboration with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus and then-Music Director David Robertson. Listen online for 30 days after this radio broadcast.
· Available for 30 days from February 27-March 27: The February 2011 Lift Every Voice concert, McBeth’s first as IN UNISON Chorus Director, produced by Nine PBS—available on the orchestra’s website.
Eric Dundon is the Public Relations Manager for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.