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Good news - Symphony's Gospel Christmas concert brings 3 musical powerhouses together

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 19, 2012 - The word Gospel is a reference, of course, to the story of Jesus of Nazareth, but the word literally means “good news.”

After facing the tragic reality of Newtown, Conn., good news seems in short supply in a season known for its glad tidings. So the St. Louis Symphony’s Gospel Christmas concert could not be a more fitting and beautiful way to mark 2012’s holiday season.

Frankly, regardless of the events unfolding around the world, this concert has already sold out, leaving standing-room-only as the only option if someone still wants to attend.

Still, St. Louis Symphony In Unison director Kevin McBeth, who will conduct Thursday’s concert, encourages people without tickets not to lose hope.

As with any concert some people turn in their tickets because of last-minute conflicts, he said.

“They are still attempting to sell standing-room-only tickets,” he said. “And there are those last-minutes emergencies or travel or whatever. Anyone still looking for tickets, do not give up totally.”

McBeth said the concert, which will bring together three outstanding ensembles on one stage (and the Powell stage at that), will be worth whatever effort someone puts forth to come.

“For me, (and, yes, I know this is biased), but I would come and stand for this — it is such an incredible array of talent,” McBeth said.

He is referring to Take 6, one of the hottest jazz ensembles, as well as his own In Unison chorus and of course the symphony. Bringing them together to share the Powell stage and showcase their talents is one thing. To do it with arguably the most moving and majestic, the most powerful and soulful carols and hymns is quite another.

It takes this performance to another level.

The In Unison chorus alone has a long-standing following for this concert as well as its Black History Month performance. The ensemble includes 120 volunteers who preserve and promote a range of African and African-American musical styles and cultural underpinnings. Most cities have a local church choir that will sing occasionally with the symphony, McBeth noted.

“With In Unison, we have a unique flagship,” he said. “We are so incredibly fortunate that we have this. It is only happening in a very few places, and that is incredible.”

The chorus attracts people from all walks of life — teachers, nurses, doctors, office workers and others — many of whom sing with their church choir and all of whom love music. Even McBeth divides his time working with the chorus as the director of music at Manchester United Methodist Church in suburban St. Louis. During December, he said he lives at Powell working on the holiday concerts.

For many in the area, the Gospel Christmas concert has become a part of their family traditions, said McBeth, In Unison’s director since January 2011.

Originally, the symphony established the In Unison chorus for a performance of Hannibal Peterson’s “African Portraits” in 1994. The following year, under the direction of conductor Robert Ray, the chorus began its musical journey, going from a one-time show into an annual event, one of the favorites among families, in the holiday season.

The reason? The music resonates with the audience. It is full of love, God, kindness and hope.

From Handel’s “Messiah” to the “Hallelujah Chorus” to “Joy to the World,” the performance this year also includes classically meaningful Christmas carols.

This concert does mark the first time that Take 6 will take the Powell stage but not the ensemble’s first appearance in St. Louis. The 10-time Grammy award-winning a cappella group wowed audiences at Jazz at the Bistro last fall. This group of six men has a notably contemporary style that pays homage to its R&B and jazz influences.

Formed in 1980 at a college in Alabama, two original members remain. Both first tenors, Mark Kibble and Claude V. McKnight III, have been involved from the start. The other four are bass Alvin Chea and second tenors David Thomas and Joey Kibble. The most recent addition to the group is baritone Khristian Dentley, who joined the ensemble in 2011.

“Take 6’s Bistro performance was a packed and amazing repertoire that showcased what they do,” McBeth said. “With the orchestra, this concert will focus on holiday and sacred music and some literature.”

Together and individually, the performances of In Unison, Take 6 and the symphony will be extraordinary, McBeth said.

“There will be those moments that are hard to describe and yet are unforgettable,” McBeth said. “Capturing those moments — because they are fleeting — taking them in completely and totally for what they are worth. That is the joy of the experience. Those times I share with the chorus and all of those who are there with me. That is my job — to translate that joy of what is going on onstage to a share that in a way that will speak to the audience.”

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