AP NEWS

St. Louis Symphony’s In Unison Chorus begins 25th year

December 24, 2018

ST. LOUIS (AP) — When the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra formed the In Unison Chorus, it was for a one-time performance. A quarter-century later, the 125-member chorus remains a popular fixture that has helped connect the symphony with the region’s black community.

The chorus, made up mostly of black singers and specializing in African and African-American music, began its 25th season last week with a Christmas program at Powell Symphony Hall. The season will include the traditional Black History Month performance with the symphony on Feb. 22 and a free concert on May 3.

Symphony president and CEO Marie-Helene Bernard believes the chorus is the only one of its kind.

“This is really meaningful to St. Louis,” Bernard said. “St. Louis is a music town and I think there are so many opportunities for us to mix all kinds of musical genres and also make it accessible to more people, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The symphony initially began its In Unison program in 1992 as an outreach to African-American churches. As part of the program, orchestra musicians visit churches and perform during services, special events and educational programs. Members of participating churches are eligible for discounted concert tickets, tuition discounts to music camps, scholarships for college students majoring in music and other benefits.

Two years later, the chorus was formed for what was supposed to be a single performance of Hannibal Peterson’s “African Portraits.” The jazz/classical opera traces the history of African-Americans and requires a choir to sing partly in the Mende language of West Africa.

The response was so positive that the chorus became a permanent fixture.

Members are selected by audition and come from throughout the St. Louis area, most from among the approximate three dozen churches that participate in the In Unison program. They range in age from people in their 20s through senior citizens.

Twenty-six have been with the chorus since its inception, including Gwen Wesley, a soprano.

Wesley said the weekly three-hour rehearsals are worth it when she sees the reaction of the typically sold-out crowds.

“The audiences are generally excited, but I’d also say they may be in awe of the music because there’s such a variety,” Wesley said. “People may come in with an idea of what they’re going to hear, but there’s such a wide variety of music that there’s something for every ear, every taste.”

Bernard said the chorus has played a pivotal role in expanding the audience for symphonic music.

“Singing in the African-American church is very important,” Bernard said. “Music is very important. Connecting that way has really enabled the orchestra to have a deep impact in the community.”