IN UNISON Chorus Provides A Bridge Between The Black Church And Classical Music
As St. Louis Symphony Orchestra musicians file into the Powell Hall stage door facing Delmar Boulevard, they’re striding along the boundary that divides a segregated city.
The St. Louis Symphony appears to be the only American orchestra to maintain a second full-sized chorus dedicated to music by African-American and African composers. Its members largely come from about three dozen black churches in and around St. Louis, where SLSO orchestra members also perform recitals throughout the year.
Music of the church and of the concert hall will intermingle Friday at Powell Hall. A concert featuring IN UNISON Chorus and the orchestra will display the richness of the chorus’s repertoire, from 19th-century spirituals to contemporary gospel.
“The whole idea was to bring the symphony to the churches in a way that people feel comfortable coming to Powell Hall,” said Gwendolyn Wesley, who has sung with the chorus from its beginning.
“So if they saw us onstage,” she said of African-American churchgoers, “and recognized faces and heard the music, it would broaden the whole experience for everybody … For me, it was a chance to grow beyond my expectations.”
“This music is more germane to us who are part of an African-American culture,” she added. “And so just bringing that to the stage of Powell Hall had an impact, not only for the singers ... but those who heard it.”
Friday’s concert will include spirituals arranged for 120-member chorus, including “Freedom’s Plow” and “Every Time I Feel the Spirit.” Other selections include contemporary gospel like Isaac Cates’ “It’s Working,” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the black national anthem. The orchestra does not join the chorus on spirituals.
The musical partnership with the orchestra, and the august setting of Powell Hall, adds power to this body of music, said Brittany Graham, a chorus member whose other credits include performances with Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
“I think it’s really important that we are able to … give spirituals the same level and importance as Beethoven’s Ninth [Symphony] and Mozart’s ‘Requiem.’ Before, it hasn’t had a platform like that, which I think is very important,” Graham said.
“It brings it up to this level that I think the arrangers and composers of the songs from back then, and from the times of slavery, wouldn’t even have imagined. So I think we’re really paying tribute to our ancestors and our history,” she added.
The finale of Friday’s concert will be Robert Ray’s “Gospel Mass,” a pathbreaking 1979 composition that follows the form of the traditional Catholic Mass while blending black American musical styles with elements of European classical music. Ray’s work may be the first such setting of the Mass; Wynton Marsalis pursued a similar inspiration more than 30 years later with his “Abyssinian Mass,” performed with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Though not Catholic himself — he was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church — Ray wrote “Gospel Mass” to perform at a convention of The National Office of Black Catholics, as part of an effort to integrate African-American music into the Catholic Church.
It caught on, and has become a staple of church repertoire. Ray wrote it for chorus plus rhythm section. In 1989, composer Paul Wilson arranged it for full orchestra, as IN UNISON Chorus and St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will perform it Friday.
Ray tapped into his musical training at Northwestern University, where he studied Mass settings by Schubert and Brahms.
“Those were the models that I had in mind. Because there were no other African-American models,” Ray said. “I think I brought all of them together. It’s not a pure gospel composition. It utilizes some jazz, it utilizes come classical and combines that with some gospel. I was using my full palette of music instruction as I sat down to write it.”
“Nobody else can duplicate”
Kevin McBeth, who took over directorship of the chorus after Ray retired in 2010, said it takes special skill to weave among those styles.
“A lot of choruses can’t really cross the street that easily. The whole thing ends up sounding very choral and out of the classical idiom, or all the way on the other side and they can’t ever really lose their gospel styling. I think Robert really wanted both of those things,” McBeth said.
Wesley, too, said the chorus members can “sing anything,” but the group’s emphasis on music from the black American tradition, sometimes performed with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, makes the group vital.
“To hear the vocal richness that these voices bring, it’s something you don’t get — and this is not a criticism, this is just saying that it’s different — you don’t get that necessarily from some of the music that other choruses are singing.
“It’s our experiences, it’s our life experiences that nobody else can duplicate,” Wesley said.
Audiences for the chorus' two Powell Hall concerts per season are overwhelmingly black. St. Louis Symphony said it can’t quantify the impact of IN UNISON Chorus and associated programming on its overall attendance now compared to 25 years ago.
President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard said the demographic makeup of audiences can shift a lot across different concerts, even over the same weekend. She said the audience for a typical classical concert at Powell Hall is about seven to 10 percent people of color, with that number rising to about 15 percent for other performances, like family concerts.
That number still lags far behind the proportion of people of color among the population of greater St. Louis. But St. Louis Symphony’s outreach efforts do outpace those of many other American orchestras.
“We’re within a stone’s throw of some incredible, historic black congregations right in our neighborhood,” McBeth said. “It’s great that the orchestra continues to understand who’s right in the shadow of Powell Hall."
Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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Correction: Jennifer Kelley was incorrectly identified in a photo in an earlier version of this story.