The IN UNISON Chorus started as something of a pick-up group in 1994. In January 1995, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was scheduled to perform Hannibal Lokumbe’s (né Marvin Peterson) oratorio African Portraits, with the composer joining as a trumpet soloist. The piece had premiered just five years prior at Carnegie Hall. Calling for orchestra, jazz quartet, blues guitar, African drums, gospel singer, and chorus, its nine emotional scenes depict a timeline of the oppression of African and African-American people from 16th century West Africa to 1989 New York.
The conductor of the program was the SLSO’s then–assistant conductor André Raphel Smith. He tasked Robert Ray, a conductor and music professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, as well as an assistant to Thomas Peck, founder of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, with pulling a choir together for this special performance. Ray succeeded—bringing singers together from local churches as well as the Symphony Chorus. The concert was a resounding success, and the new chorus was so well-received that it quickly became a permanent fixture and part of the SLSO family.
While the chorus sang its first concert in 1995, the IN UNISON program had been in existence since 1992. Wanting to engage more meaningfully with the St. Louis community, the SLSO started the IN UNISON Church Program with support from Bayer Fund as a partnership with five churches. As part of this program, orchestra musicians visited member churches to offer music during services, special event concerts, and educational events. Since its partnership with the five initial churches, the program has grown to include 33 churches who have hosted 2,200 attendees for special concerts and sent more than 5,000 churchgoers to Powell Hall to attend a concert.
The IN UNISON Chorus continued to grow after its premiere performance. Today, its 114 auditioned members come from a 30-mile radius of Powell Hall, and range in age from their 20s to their 80s. The Chorus gives three concerts each season: two with the SLSO at Powell Hall—the Gospel Christmas concert in December, and the Lift Every Voice: Black History Month Celebration in February—and one free community concert, reaching an audience of more than 5,000. Its mission remains to preserve, promote, and perform music of African and African-American cultures that broaden music appreciation and enrich musical experiences.
The final component of the IN UNISON program is the Academy, which supports opportunities for young African-Americans to study music and explore careers in arts administration through scholarships and paid fellowships. It also presents Young Artist Awards for talented singers to perform with the Chorus. The program hosts an initiative called Mentoring the Music: Peer to Peer, which provides free coaching and SLSO concerts for middle and high school students. Each year 20 students receive mentorship or scholarships, including six University of Missouri–St. Louis scholarships for incoming music majors.
In its 26-year history, the Chorus has more than 100 performances to its name, including two Carnegie Hall appearances. It celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream” speech in February 2013, with world-renowned vocal artist Wintley Phipps narrating the speech while the SLSO performed Samuel Barber’s Adagio. The Chorus has presented music by some of today’s most admired African-American composers, such as Brazeal Dennard, Moses Hogan, André Thomas, and Jeffrey Ames. For the Chorus’ 15th anniversary, the SLSO commissioned composer Rollo Dilworth—a native St. Louisan and former student of Robert Ray’s—resulting in the work Freedom’s Plow, for chorus and orchestra.
Former IN UNISON Chorus Director Robert Ray’s composition, Gospel Mass, has also entered into the Chorus’ repertoire. Based on the liturgy of the Catholic mass, Ray’s work weaves gospel and jazz elements with those of the towering classical composers he studied in university. The SLSO and IN UNISON Chorus have performed the piece 12 times since its SLSO premiere in 1996, including a performance at the Lift Every Voice concert in 2019. The same concert included a world premiere of It’s Working, by Kansas City composer Isaac Cates, as well as the Chorus’ earlier commission, Freedom’s Plow.
As the founding director of the IN UNISON Chorus, Ray sought out repertoire that would bridge the divide between the classical and gospel traditions, working to build a chorus that was comfortable and capable in both idioms. When Ray retired after 15 seasons in 2010, Kevin McBeth, who had already been singing with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, as well as working full-time in church music, took the reins. McBeth has worked to further the exposure of the chorus, including collaborating with new SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève to have the chorus perform for the thousands gathered on Art Hill for the annual Forest Park concert last September.
Over the past 25 years, the IN UNISON program has left an indelible mark on the St. Louis community. At the macro level, the program has reached 11,000 individuals across 15 counties in Missouri and Illinois, hosting more than 30 events and activities each year. The IN UNISON Chorus continues to be a valued member of the SLSO family, having performed at Forest Park, as well as with guest artists including St. Louis’ own Kennedy Holmes, and world-renowned talent such as Ryan Shaw and Capathia Jenkins. In the 2020/2021 Classical season, the IN UNISON Chorus will perform with Music Director Stéphane Denève on a program featuring the SLSO premiere of Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3, as well as a world premiere. As the IN UNISON program enters its next quarter century, it continues to build on its rich legacy of building bridges in the community.
Gwen Wesley, a charter member of the IN UNISON Chorus, puts that impact to words: “Our music creates a sense of community in Powell Hall, where a person can relax and appreciate others without societal interpretations of who we are. These experiences carry over into our separate communities, giving us different and, hopefully, more positive images of each other.”
This article appears in the February 2020 edition of the SLSO's Playbill.