IN UNISON chorus members L.R. Bracy and Rochelle Calhoun endearingly refer to themselves as soprano sisters, though they look more like grandmother and granddaughter. That is part of the power of the 120-voice choir.
At age 94, Bracy has announced that this year will be her last.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” Bracy said. “Because I love to sing, and I love the camaraderie – everybody is so much like a family.”
Calhoun is not happy about her upcoming departure.
“I feel some kind of way about it,” she said. “I’m hoping that after the break she changes her mind and we see her again. I’m going to feel some type of way if I look down the row come September and don’t see her.”
Bracy seems convinced.
“It’s like leaving your family behind. It’s kind of sad,” Bracy said. “It’s been a joy doing it – learning and reaching new heights in music. The mind is willing, but the body is weak.”
Bracy and Calhoun have an interesting common bond – neither grew up singing gospel. Both were raised Catholic and were used to their church music being classically performed – and in Latin.
Calhoun is in her sixth season. Bracy has been with the group from its inception when, under the leadership of Robert Ray, singers from different church choirs came together to form IN UNISON.
On Friday, May 3, IN UNISON and the St. Louis Symphony will commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the chorus with a special community concert at Powell Hall. It will be one of their few remaining performances together.
“It bridges different communities, it bridges different generations and it bridges different faiths under this roof,” Calhoun said. “We have a wonderful time showing everyone that the St. Louis Symphony is not the symphony for just a few people, not the symphony for people of a certain ethnicity or socio-economic level – that it is our symphony.”
A native of Virginia, Calhoun was introduced to gospel and Negro spirituals through the Hampton University Concert Choir. Part of that music education was “Gospel Mass” by Robert Ray – the man who founded IN UNISON.
Bracy was introduced to gospel as a member of the historic Antioch Baptist Church, which was one of the charter church choirs that came together to create the IN UNISON Chorus a quarter-century ago.
“We started out with all black churches, and now we are quite integrated,” Bracy said of IN UNISON.
People of all ages and races were on hand Monday night when the group gathered for one of their final rehearsals before Friday’s concert. For their vocal warm up, they invited chorus members who shared the birthdays on the months that they would be absent from performing together to the front of the stage to be serenaded with a harmonious rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
“Who has a birthday in June?” IN UNISON Director Kevin McBeth said. The choir began to shout out names of people to come forward.
Ahead of the rehearsal, McBeth said that the group was “one big happy family.” The gesture proved him right.
They soaked in the moment of each of the three warmups, then got down to business. A traditional gospel selection, a classic Negro spiritual and a selection from the Broadway musical “The Color Purple” were first on the list.
“There are moments when IN UNISON is singing and the orchestra is playing, if you closed your eyes you would be in a worship sanctuary,” McBeth said. “The verbal response from the audience member is much like a worship service in that regard. And the way everyone is just so passionate about making this music come to life.”
McBeth was eager to admit that Ray left quite a legacy – and pretty big shoes to fill – when he stepped in to carry the torch as director of IN UNISON eight years ago. But it’s a position McBeth feels built for.
“I’m living a dream life,” said McBeth. “My move into this position into being a part of the bridge has been easy because the groundwork has been there. Twenty-five years ago, Dr. Ray, the St. Louis Symphony and all of those people involved in the community partnerships they all did the heavy lifting. My bigger responsibility is to honor all of that work that has been done and to make sure that I have a legacy like this one to pass on to whoever will be the next conductor when I retire in 100 years.”
According to McBeth, the St. Louis Symphony is passionate about the IN Unison Chorus. Members of the orchestra look forward to the unique experiences provided through their annual performances held during their Gospel Christmas, “Lift Every Voice” Black History Month Concert and the community outreach performances that take place throughout the year.
“When you get 120 really fine singers on the stage with 80 in the orchestra, I often joke it’s like driving a very expensive race car with no brakes,” McBeth said. “At any moment you don’t know what the spirit is going to do, but you do know it’s going to be really wonderful.”
It was that very spirit of A Gospel Christmas, with special guest CeCe Winans that introduced Calhoun to IN UNISON. She promises that same energy Friday night.
“Not only see the chorus, but the orchestra youth mentors, IN UNISON scholars and our young artists,” Calhoun said. “Every aspect of the IN UNISON program is going to be represented Friday night on stage. We are all going to be making a joyful noise, and if you miss it you will regret it.”
The St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus Community Concert commemorating the 25th Anniversary of IN Unison will take place at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 3 at Powell Symphony Hall. The performance is free and open to the public, but reservations are requested. For more information, visit https://www.slso.org/en/com/community_concerts/.