© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
We will broadcast special coverage of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, starting with the RNC tonight at 8.

IN UNISON celebrates 30 years of bridging the Black church and the concert hall

Performers sing during a rehearsal for St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus on Monday at Webster Hills United Methodist Church in Webster Groves.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Performers sing during a rehearsal for St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus on Monday at Webster Hills United Methodist Church in Kirkwood. The ensemble of over 100 singers performs music from the African diaspora.

On a recent Monday, the sounds of joy filled Webster Hills United Methodist Church. Dozens of singers from the St. Louis Symphony's IN UNISON Chorus rehearsed a vibrant selection of tunes for its anniversary concert. The songs range from 19th century arrangements of spirituals to the contemporary song "Born for This" by gospel singer BeBe Winans.

The autobiographical song celebrates how Winans has pursued his calling. IN UNISON Chorus Director Kevin McBeth describes it as a song that reflects the spirit of modern gospel music, which centers on the joy and hope that Black Americans find through their faith, despite hardships.

“The focus, for the most part, tends to be more joyful, tends to be more grateful,” McBeth said. “There's a little bit more focus on joy and on the human expression, and on the fact that God has taken care of us.”

Audiences can hear that joy Friday when the chorus performs with Winans at the Stifel Theatre in a celebration of the ensemble's 30 years of taking the music of the Black church to the symphony.

Since its founding, IN UNISON Chorus has honored the rich history of Black gospel music, inviting singers from predominantly Black churches and organizations throughout the St. Louis area to perform songs by African and African American composers and singers with the orchestra.

McBeth calls the music “gospel symphonic” because it combines elements of classical music with Black gospel music and spirituals that will be performed with the orchestra.

Kevin McBeth, 62, director of the chorus, directs music during a rehearsal for St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at Webster Hills United Methodist Church in Kirkwood. The ensemble of over 100 singers performs music from the African diaspora.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Kevin McBeth, 62, director of the chorus, directs music during a rehearsal for St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus on Monday at Webster Hills United Methodist Church in Kirkwood.

“The idea of having some of [Winans’] great gospel tunes orchestrated so that not only do you hear them with the typical rhythm section and sometimes the Hammond organ,” McBeth said. “Now there's the addition of horns as a horn section, there's a string section, there's a lovely opportunity for woodwinds to be a part of that.”

“You think of some pieces in this particular way, but then when you add this other dimension, it becomes something really, really different.”

McBeth said the music follows the tradition of Black singers like Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle and Leontyne Price who helped pave the way for concert spirituals.

The show begins with an arrangement of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black national anthem. McBeth said the orchestra will perform an arrangement that starts with African drums and adds gospel and jazz influences. The chorus will sing a version later in the show.

Performers sing during a rehearsal for St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at Webster Hills United Methodist Church in Kirkwood.  The ensemble of over 100 singers performs music from the African diaspora.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Performers sing during a rehearsal for St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus on Monday at Webster Hills United Methodist Church in Kirkwood.

“For the world to know now that we've had this song, it should mean a lot to everybody, but it means so much to the Black community,” said Bridget Stegall, who first joined the choir in 1996.

The chorus began with former director, Robert Ray, who retired in 2010. He died two years ago, but his mission to connect churchgoers to the symphony continues. The IN UNISON partnership includes the symphony's church program with more than 30 churches. The chorus also hosts multiple concerts a year, including its Gospel Christmas: A Soulful Celebration show in December and a Juneteenth concert.

Through scholarships and partnerships, the chorus has been able to attract young singers, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard said.

“Imagine circles of engagement that ring through the community from the music making, a group of 100 singers have come together week after week to share their love of music,” Bernard said.

From left to right: Johnny Gillings Jr., Tai Oney, Christopher Scott, Robert Beckles, and Don Hutcherson sing during a rehearsal for St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at Webster Hills United Methodist Church in Kirkwood.  The ensemble of over 100 singers performs music from the African diaspora.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
From left: Johnny Gillings Jr., Tai Oney, Christopher Scott, Robert Beckles and Don Hutcherson sing during a rehearsal for St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus on Monday at Webster Hills United Methodist Church in Kirkwood.

The choir's singers/members are from different generations and musical backgrounds singing hymns and gospel tunes. Vocalist Johnny Gillings Jr. joined the choir a year ago, attracted by its musical selections and the chance to perform with other singers. He sees a future with the ensemble because of how connected the singers are to each other and tells the story of his people.

“That is what gospel music is for Black folk, where you can look at its evolution over years and see our evolution over years,” Gillings said. ”For me, as a musician, I want to be a part of that kind of experience.”

The chorus is making big plans to expand its community work with music publishing through local publishing company, Morningstar Music. McBeth said the chorus will look for composers and arrangers to write gospel symphonic pieces and continue the chorus’s legacy.

“It's just one of those moments that, for all of us, we’re really kind of humbled by,” McBeth said. “I think the future for the IN UNISON Chorus is golden right now.”

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.