By Tim Munro
Kevin McBeth’s voice is aural massage. After speaking with Kevin, the director of the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus, I feel calm, secure, hopeful. So when he proclaims, “the IN UNISON Chorus is a family,” I almost immediately burst into tears.
“Rehearsals are like a family reunion every week,” he says. “We spend the first ten minutes of each gathering saying hello, giving hugs, catching up.” Kevin misses this community, misses the contact with humans. “I am very much an extrovert.”
Like a lot of us, he has struggled to get used to a world lived online, “sitting here in my loft, just me and my little box. I tend to spend so much of my time around people. I’m learning to live in the quiet and solace.”
And he misses standing alongside his musical family. “I don’t know any conductor who doesn’t at least draw some of their energy from that assembled group. I miss that energy of people gathered in one room and making music.
Kevin and the IN UNISON Chorus Manager stay in contact with the members of the chorus.
“There has been one death in the extended IN UNISON family that I know of, but in general everyone is doing okay.” Even online, people music making can’t be repressed: “A lot of people singing on Facebook Live!”
Kevin has spent this time looking forward. Next season the IN UNISON Chorus, the SLSO, and Music Director Stéphane Denève will premiere a new commission by Nathalie Joachim. Kevin says that Nathalie, a Grammy-nominated singer, flutist, and composer, is “a beautiful person, with wonderful energy, wonderful insights.”
When they connected, Kevin felt a fire was lit. “It was amazing to see that spark grow during the conversation. We talked a lot about community—how the IN UNISON Chorus has become such a community. She wants to include that idea, that thought of community, of connectedness, in the commission.”
Kevin has also been thinking about another sort of connection: bringing together his musical families: the IN UNISON Chorus and the Manchester United Methodist Church Chancel Choir. “The choirs have become close—beautiful friendships have been fostered.” After this period of distance, “it will be time for a fond reunion.”
When I ask him about the art that has given meaning in this time, Kevin laughs. “I wish I had something poetic to say!” When the world comes back to life, Kevin expects a fast ramp-up. “This feels like the quiet before the storm.” He is reveling in this time to just relax and not do a whole lot.
This period allows for reflection. “It’s caused everyone I know to stop and think.” And he is clear: “I don’t think we’re totally isolated. People have been calling it physical distancing, not social distancing. We’re finding ways to be social.”
“Imagine if this happened 15 years ago,” says Kevin. “How would people have stayed connected then?” The learning curve has been steep, the financial and social pain is great for many, but for Kevin the online world has been a blessing.
“It is connecting us to people, drawing us all together.” Like a family, perhaps?
Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly-behaved orange cat.