Richard Smallwood

Richard Smallwood and his vocal ensemble Vision performed with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and its IN UNISON Chorus before a sold-out audience at the symphony’s annual Gospel Christmas concert Thursday, December 8 at Powell Hall. Photo by Wiley Price / St. Louis American

Powell Symphony Hall became a sanctuary last Thursday for the IN UNISON Chorus’ annual holiday concert, aptly named “A Gospel Christmas.”

And while celebrating the season was what brought the sold-out audience of all backgrounds together, praise was the order of business in the message of the music as they welcomed Richard Smallwood with Vision as this year’s celebrity headliner. Smallwood and IN UNISON performed separately and together over the course of the two-hour concert.

The praise-fest began with IN UNISON’s performance for “Praise His Holy Name!” Smallwood elicited shouts as he and his group sang the audience into the spirit with “Total Praise.”

The song, which served as the evening’s finale, wasn’t on the program. But it would be impossible to imagine that Smallwood and his ensemble of singers and musicians would be able to leave the stage without performing the 1996 contemporary gospel classic that has become a standard for church choirs around the world.

“We’ve got time for one more,” Smallwood said.

Before he could hint at taking requests, audience members began individually shouting “‘Total Praise,’ ‘Total Praise!’”

He knew they would and had prepared accordingly.

As the opening piano chords blended with the strings of the symphony orchestra for the song’s intro, the crowd started their own personal praise parties before Smallwood With Vision sang a single note.

And when the dozen singers began to sing the opening line of the song, the shots of “hallelujah,” “amen” and “thank you, Jesus” came close to obstructing Vision’s precise harmonies.

But the shouts soon gave way to a three-way unison that included the chorus, Smallwood With Vision and the audience. “You are the source of my strength. You are the strength of my life. I lift my hands in total praise to you,” they sang on cue – and in tune.

Hearing the song performed with the accompaniment of a full orchestra maximized its impact and illustrated the intention of Smallwood’s musical style.

He’s been a household name on the gospel music scene for more than two decades and set himself apart from the rest of the industry with a seamless blend of contemporary gospel and traditional classical music.

His songs give the essence of symphonies in their own right with the chord progressions and grand scale of instrumentation, which made him and his group a perfect fit for the symphony.

It was especially clear for “Procession of the Levites and Anthem of Praise.” The sweeping scale of the tune emulates the dramatic eclipses of an opera – from the display of vocal range to the clashing of the orchestral arrangement.  

Then, for the bridge of the song, Smallwood takes the audience back to church with the chord progressions and singing style.

Aside from joining in for the selections of their guests, IN UNISON performed a handful of selections on their own, including “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration, “Joy” (the Kirk Franklin composition made famous as part of “The Preacher’s Wife” Soundtrack) and a soulful rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” featuring a solo by Karen Hylton.

“We’re about to do a song that you’ve all heard before,” IN UNISON director Kevin McBeth said as he introduced the Christmas classic. “But I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard it done like this.” 

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