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St. Louis Symphony’s IN UNISON chorus will commission new work with $40,000 NEA grant

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Dilip Vishwanat
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St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's IN UNISON chorus performs at a past event. The organization has commissioned a new piece to showcase the ensemble at a subscription concert for the first time in more than 10 years.

A $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts will boost the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s efforts to showcase Black artists.

The organization will use the money to commission a new work that its IN UNISON chorus will perform with the orchestra. The May 6 concert at Powell Hall will be the first time in over a decade that IN UNISON has joined the orchestra for a classical concert.

“It just really broadens our footprint. It kind of expands our exposure with more symphonygoers. It just exposes us to a few more people,” said chorus Director Kevin McBeth.

The IN UNISON chorus focuses on work by African and African American composers. The centerpieces of its season typically include a gospel Christmas performance and a concert celebrating Black History Month.

Nathalie Joachim, a Brooklyn-based composer, flutist and vocalist, will compose the new piece. She has already conducted several interviews with members of the chorus and will incorporate their words into the composition, titled “Home.”

The Haitian American musician is a member of Eighth Blackbird, an innovative chamber group that has won four Grammy Awards. Her solo debut, “Fanm D'ayiti,” earned a Grammy nomination for best world music album in 2019.

St. Louis Symphony Music Director Stéphane Denève has emphasized the importance of IN UNISON since starting his job in 2019, inviting the ensemble that year to perform for the first time as part of the orchestra’s annual Forest Park concert.

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Jeremy D. Goodwin
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St. Louis Public Radio
IN UNISON chorus Director Kevin McBeth leads a rehearsal at Powell Hall in 2019, alongside pianist Chris White. A May concert will provide McBeth's first opportunity to lead IN UNISON in a newly commissioned piece.

The organization has commissioned pieces for the chorus just twice before, on the occasion of its 10th and 15th anniversaries. Robert Ray founded the chorus in 1992, with singers from local, Black churches. Musicians and scholars consider his “Gospel Mass” to be a landmark union of African American musical styles, European classical music and Catholic liturgical music. McBeth has led IN UNISON since 2010.

“People come to see artists and music where they see themselves,” President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard said. “This is a complete recognition and support of great music by great artists, but it’s also supporting Black artists and how they are contributing to creating a really interesting catalog of music for symphony orchestras.”

Bernard said in 2019 that the audience for a typical classical concert at Powell Hall is about 7% to 10% people of color, with that share rising to about 15% for other performances, like family concerts. Audiences for IN UNISON’s usual pair of annual concerts at Powell Hall are predominantly Black. The chorus performs other concerts in local churches.

St. Louis Symphony announced nearly $200,000 in grants last July, most of it dedicated to the chorus and associated community programming. Some of the funds support a mentorship program for young African American musicians.

“We’re known for symphonic gospel, spirituals, those kinds of things,” McBeth said. “But we like doing Bach and we like doing Handel, so this is a little bit of a crossover for us, but it’s an expansion of what we’ve been doing.”

McBeth said Denève approached him to discuss new opportunities for IN UNISON.

“There was a conversation about really wanting to continue to expand the breadth and depth of what the IN UNISON chorus has done with an orchestra. And this commission is one of those ways to do it.“

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

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