Conducting a legacy: St. Louis Symphony Orchestra chorus director celebrates milestone
Some people find what they love to do later in life after trial and error. Others discover their calling right away and continue to hone it and nurture it for the rest of their lives. Kevin McBeth, Director of IN UNISON Chorus with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) has done just that, fostering a 45-year connection to choral music and choral conducting.
In February, McBeth celebrated 10 years as the director of IN UNISON Chorus. One of two auditioned choruses at SLSO, IN UNISON focuses on performing music from Black cultures and Black composers, with singers that run the gamut in terms of age and life experience; the singers range in age from 20 to 80. As McBeth puts it, the chorus is made of “all kinds of humanity.”
These 120 auditioned voices perform at three different concerts “each with their own special appeal” as part of their performance season in a regular year. With auditions in August, they hit the ground running to be ready in time for the first concert on their calendar, Gospel Christmas at Powell Hall. Performing music from gospel greats like The Blind Boys of Alabama and Richard Smallwood to more traditional R&B artists, the IN UNISON Chorus Christmas concert is the group’s most popular event. “It is a night on the town,” McBeth said. “You see all the glitz and glamor and the fur coats. People are celebrating and dressed in their holiday best… It’s become kind of the event.”
The second concert on their season calendar is Lift Every Voice: Celebrating Black History Month. While the Christmas concert is all about the holidays and getting in the Christmas spirit, the Black History Month concert is focused on “music of the Black experience” and “inspirational music around unity” in particular. The chorus’s final concert, typically held later in the spring, is a concert that McBeth does not conduct.
The spring concert is a community event, held at the IN UNISON churches in the St. Louis community. A guest composer and arranger conducts the concert, giving the group the chance to be led by and grow intimate with the creator of the music they’re singing. Pre-pandemic, the community would have anticipated these events and the choral numbers the group would perform, but because of COVID-19, the group has not performed since last year. “Choral music has really been on hiatus the longest for the Symphony because of the fact that it’s a highly sensitive area. It’s our hope for the fall that we’ll be able to begin again,” McBeth said.
With the hiatus of choral music, McBeth has not been inside Powell Hall in a year, further cementing in him a much-felt absence—choral conducting is a part of who he is. From Houston, Texas, McBeth started choral conducting at his mother’s church when he was 15. “My mother volunteered me, volun-told me for that position,” said McBeth. From that point on, McBeth would surround himself with gospel and choral music, “steeping” himself in the literature of gospel greats like Walter Hawkins and Andre Crouch until his journey brought him to St. Louis as the full time music director and workshop leader at Manchester United Methodist Church in Manchester, Missouri.
In every church that McBeth has worked at, he always tried to not only be a member of the church community but the community of the church. When he arrived in St. Louis 25 years ago, he plugged himself into the community by finding a home at the SLSO, singing with the Symphony Chorus. The group that most people would be familiar with, the Symphony Chorus performs all of the big-name major choral pieces and is accompanied by the orchestra. The Symphony Chorus is also where he got his start conducting for the SLSO. For seven years, McBeth assisted in conducting the Symphony Chorus before he left to conduct the St. Louis Metro Singers. Although McBeth no longer worked directly with the Symphony, the St. Louis Metro Singers still sang with the Orchestra, so his ever-growing connection to the SLSO was not lost.
But conducting is not the only path that McBeth has taken to show his appreciation and love of choral music. For two years, he taught at Webster University as a choral adjunct professor. He claims that his time at Webster is what enabled him to be a viable candidate for conducting the IN UNISON Chorus. “I’m convinced that all I have done up to this point, but especially my time at Webster, was really key in my being hired for the post with the Symphony,” he said.
Having just celebrated his 10-year anniversary with the IN UNISON Chorus, McBeth reflected on what keeps him coming back, not only to the Chorus itself but also to choral music in general. “It’s probably not a surprise to anyone,” he said, “but the sheer potential of the kind of music making and the kind of life-changing experiences that we can have through music is the driver.”
For McBeth, creating the caliber of music that the SLSO produces is a “thrill,” and that feeling hasn’t gone away for him. But the chorus isn’t just a community of singers and musicians, it’s a family as well. McBeth wishes that everyone who sees them perform could catch a glimpse of the rehearsals, where he says the real bond is formed. Through their time together and the music they create, McBeth explains, the IN UNISON Chorus is “creating an atmosphere within the arts that speaks to everyone.”
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