By Eric Dundon
Since Kevin McBeth joined the artistic leadership of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in January 2011, he’s conducted dozens of concerts, prepared hundreds of pieces, and amassed a trove of treasured memories.
The Director of the IN UNISON Chorus—the resident SLSO chorus that specializes in the performance and preservation of music from African and African American cultures—shares some of his favorite experiences with the SLSO in the past ten years.
“Every conductor has those moments that they can recall,” he said, recalling ten special memories in honor of his tenth anniversary.
1. Getting the job
By 2010, McBeth already had a long history with the SLSO as a member and Assistant Director of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. When Dr. Robert Ray, IN UNISON Chorus Founding Director, announced he was stepping down from the position, McBeth jumped at the opportunity to lead the pioneering chorus. Near the end of 2010, he took a whirlwind trip to New York City for a final interview with then-Music Director David Robertson. McBeth recalls discussing the future of the chorus with Robertson, who shared his excitement for the chorus’ trajectory. The trip lasted little more than a day but left a lasting impression on McBeth. “It wasn’t until a few weeks later that my brain caught up with me,” McBeth said.
2. 2011 Lift Every Voice Concert
McBeth hit the ground running after taking his new position as Director of the IN UNISON Chorus in January 2011. He had little more than a month and a half to prepare his first concert: the annual Lift Every Voice: Celebrating Black History Month concert. He remembers the welcoming atmosphere set by chorus members, even in the frenzied pace to prepare a full concert on a limited timeline. “It was a deep time of learning,” he said, recalling that each rehearsal was like learning a new secret handshake as he grew closer to IN UNISON Chorus singers.
3. Take 6 brings down the house
At the 2012 and 2018 annual Gospel Christmas concerts, the recording group Take 6 shared the stage with the IN UNISON Chorus. Described by multi-talented record producer Quincy Jones as “the best singing cats in the business,” Take 6 brought a new energy to Powell Hall. Working with a group with such recording and commercial success stands out to McBeth. “Those have been tremendous experiences with giants in the business,” he said.
4. Jennifer Holliday and the winter weather
Another superstar to work with McBeth and the IN UNISON Chorus, Jennifer Holliday wowed Powell Hall audiences with renditions of popular Broadway hits from shows including Dreamgirls and Hairspray. But this February 2014 Lift Every Voice concert almost didn’t happen with “America’s Dreamgirl” behind the microphone, according to McBeth. Winter weather delayed flights and kept Holliday away from St. Louis, forcing McBeth and the chorus to pivot drastically just days from the concert. “Those were some pretty nerve-wracking days,” McBeth remembered, wondering if Holliday would make it to St. Louis as he prepared an alternate concert. She didn’t arrive in time for the dress rehearsal, and McBeth says it’s the only time he can recall conducting a dress rehearsal without a guest artist. Thankfully, Holliday arrived in St. Louis the day of the concert and gave a smashing performance with the chorus that ranks as one of McBeth’s favorite concerts.
5. Oleta Adams and the reputation of the IN UNISON Chorus
“She’s one of the voices of our time,” McBeth says about Oleta Adams, who has performed with the IN UNISON Chorus twice, performing gospel and soul hits in 2014 and 2018. McBeth says that making those appearances all the sweeter is Adams’ respect for the chorus. “’I’ve heard about this orchestra and this chorus,’” McBeth recalls her saying. Artists talk to one another, McBeth said, and the chorus’ history and quality keep acclaimed artists wanting to come back to St. Louis. “It’s wonderful to get that kind of endorsement,” he said.
6. Holiday Festival Chorus
Outside of working with the IN UNISON Chorus, McBeth also directed the Holiday Festival Chorus, a unique ensemble of young singers that partnered with the SLSO for holiday concerts. Composed of students from schools across the St. Louis area, McBeth prepared the singers to perform on Powell Hall’s Emerson Concert Stage. McBeth says with pride that in leading the Holiday Festival Chorus, he has conducted all of the SLSO performing ensembles: the SLSO, St. Louis Symphony Chorus, IN UNISON Chorus, St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, and Holiday Festival Chorus.
7. Live at Powell Hall concerts
McBeth also values the relationship he has built over the years with the SLSO. That relationship has blossomed as he has led the orchestra for several Live at Powell Hall concerts with guest artists including Amos Lee, Ledisi, and a tribute to Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole. “I’ve never heard Powell Hall erupt in such applause,” he remembers about the SLSO concert with Boyz II Men. “I speak singer,” he says, making him able to better communicate with superstar and Tony-winning talent including Leslie Odom, Jr., and Sutton Foster.
8. New works
McBeth values bringing new works to the IN UNISON Chorus, broadening its artistic footprint. Especially memorable are performances of works new to the repertoire, including the world premiere of SLSO-commissioned “It’s Working” by Isaac Cates in 2019, a soul-stirring composition that features a virtuosic solo soprano part. “A lot of the music we perform is also brand new to the SLSO,” he says. “We hear back from SLSO musicians, ‘Keep bringing us new music.’”
9. Fourth of July concert under the Arch
“I consider myself extremely fortunate to work these fine musicians,” McBeth says. “The SLSO has been very gracious in giving me chances to work with the full orchestra.” One of the standout performances is the reopening of Gateway Arch National Park on the grounds of the park in July 2018 in front of tens of thousands of people at Fair Saint Louis. “That was a life-altering experience,” he says. “Even if I get a chance to do another concert in that setting, it will never be like that one.”
10. The community
One of the overarching feelings McBeth has about his ten years with the SLSO is of family, a supportive community that nurtures young musicians and fosters artistic excellence. In the IN UNISON Chorus, “we say goodbye to seasoned singers and welcome young musicians, but the community remains.”
Eric Dundon is the Public Relations Manager of the SLSO.