By Justino Gordón-LeChevalié
"This season marks a milestone for the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus (IUC) as it commemorates three decades of performing and preserving the rich musical heritage of the African diaspora. Comprised of more than 100 members from all walks of life, there is a special energy that comes from an IN UNISON concert. As the chorus prepares for its annual Lift Every Voice concert celebrating Black History Month and featuring BeBe Winans on February 23, four singers—whose tenures range from one to 29 years— reflected on how the chorus has
shaped their lives over the years.
SLSO: How many years have you been with the IUC and what is your role within the chorus?
Ousmane Gaye: This is my first year and I’m a tenor.
Nadia Maddex: This is my fifth year and I started as an IN UNISON Scholar and Young Artist, but I also held the IUC Fellowship position for two years where I worked in arts
administration. Currently I am continuing in my position as an IUC Young Artist
in the soprano section and a chorus member at large.
Elsa Gordon-Whitfield: This is my 20th year and I’m an alto.
Harry Moppins, Jr.: This is my 29th year and I’m a tenor, and in the
earlier years I assisted with sectional rehearsals as well as rehearsed the
chorus whenever the late Dr. [Robert] Ray [IUC’s founding director] was not in
SLSO: What was the initial reason that made you want to join the chorus?
Ousmane: I am not a member who is professionally trained but I have had the pleasure of being in various singing groups since high school. Coming out of college, I knew creating music was something I wanted to continue to do with my time and was lucky to find a group that combines high-energy, dynamic singing, and a rigorous repertoire that pushes us as vocalists.
Nadia: When I was in high school, I was a participant in the holiday festival chorus through my school. There, I had the pleasure of meeting Kevin McBeth [IUC Director] and Michelle Byrd [IUC Manager] who made a point to keep in contact with me into my collegiate career. When I decided to stay in St. Louis for college, I auditioned for the chorus, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I received preparation for my career as a choral educator through the IN UNISON Scholars program; I have had countless opportunities provided to me like being a soloist at the SLSO’s Forest Park concert and on both the stages of Powell Hall and the Stifle Theatre, and I continue to be blessed with opportunities to represent the chorus as a Young Artist.
Elsa: For years Dr. Ray would guest perform at our church, playing for us and occasionally accompanying our choir, and in 1995 he asked our choir director, Walter Young, to invite members of our choir to join IUC. I’ve always loved to sing, along with all of my brothers and sisters, so I jumped at the chance to sing with a chorus at Powell Symphony Hall. It was such an honor then, and it’s been an honor ever since.
Harry: When Dr. Ray told me about the purpose of the chorus, which was both to perform and uplift orchestral and choral music written or arranged by Black composers, as well as represent and introduce a large demographic of the St. Louis community who may not have come to a Powell Symphony Hall concert before, I hought that was such an important thing to do and I wanted to be a part of it.
SLSO: How has being a member of the IUC impacted your life?
Ousmane: I was really struck from the first rehearsal, despite this being the largest chorus I’ve joined, at how tight-knit it felt. People have their inside jokes and our breaks become a social hour. I love the range of ages and perspectives in this group and the willingness from those who have been here longer to see younger IUC singers thrive. I tend to err on the side of being a quiet observer when I’m joining something new but as time continued, I found myself making friends easily, no matter the section we were singing in. After the December 8 Gospel Christmas, my belief in the restorative power of music was reaffirmed as audience members commented that this performance is one of the highlights of people’s holiday season.
Nadia: Being a young musician and the youngest member of the chorus when I joined, I learned so much being surrounded by people with similar interests that came from every possible walk of life. I sat next to charter members who were three times my senior, dentists, educators, musicians, salespeople, and even members of my soon to be sorority—but most importantly I sat with newfound family.
Elsa: My brother (Orville Gordon–member for 18 years) and I immigrated to the U.S. from Panama, and we were the first Hispanic members of IN UNISON. He and I both felt so special to not only be performing this incredibly important music, but also learning about the various cultural and musical traditions from around the African diaspora. To be part of
a community of such talented musicians, performing with one of the best orchestras in the country, under the leadership of Dr. Ray and now Kevin McBeth has been such a privilege. I’ve been able to perform with The Blind Boys of Alabama, BeBe and CeCe Winans, Roland Carter, Take 6; I never thought I would have such experiences coming to this country. And to see how IN UNISON also nurtured and supported my nephew through his beginnings in opera all the way through college and even afterward. IN UNISON is a family.
Harry: I’m not a member of an IN UNISON church but I was able to meet a lot of other wonderful musicians from around St. Louis, other states, or even other countries, all of whom I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to meet. It’s been such a blessing to make friends and music with people from all over. Additionally, anthems, hymns, traditional gospel, and spirituals aren’t sung nearly as much in the churches and school choirs as they were when I was growing up, so we’re one of the last active ensembles in St. Louis where people can still hear this kind of music and hear it with a world-class orchestra. From a larger point of view, I think that’s a big impact to the community at large and one of the reasons why IN UNISON concerts are so well attended.
SLSO: And finally, what would you say to someone who’s considering joining the chorus?
Ousmane: We are a great group of singers, but we do it because it brings us joy! Don’t forget to have fun even during the audition process. My time has been short in the IUC, but I know that I am building relationships here that will last for many years.
Nadia: To anyone looking to join this amazing organization, I would highly encourage you to do so. There is something so powerful about having the opportunity to continue to spread the excellence of composers, musicians, and cultures of the African diaspora. There’s something even more powerful about doing it all while standing next to people who have the same goal as you—to leave the legacy and message of the IUC with every audience member who attends a performance. The chorus membership will care for you, they will uplift you, and they will bring you joy. You won’t regret it; I know I don’t.
Elsa: Come and audition; don’t be afraid! Nothing beats a failure but a try. If you love to sing and have fun, there is a place here for you. I never thought I would be part of such an amazing community, but here I am 20 years later.
Harry: Be committed to the time and the music and you will flourish here.
Justino Gordón-LeChevalié is the SLSO's Communications and Publications Coordinator.