Kevin McBeth's voice booms out from him like somebody just turned up the amp on a really fine stereo system. "I get teased about that a good bit," he says, mimicking the inevitable "Are you in radio?" That resonance comes in handy when he's singing to demonstrate: or "to model," as McBeth describes it: for the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISONÔÎ Chorus, which he directs, or the 500 adults and children in the 18 choral and handbell ensembles of Manchester United Methodist Church, where he is director of music. "But there have been times it's gotten me into trouble," he admits. "I'll be at a public event, and someone will say, 'Well, we know Kevin McBeth is here." Luckily, he's not shy.
"I'm told that when I was four or five, I'd run down in front of church to watch the organist play the last piece of music," he says. His father favored the staid hymns of his Lutheran upbringing, his mother the rousing gospel music of her Missionary Baptist church. "From the beginning, my taste was eclectic."
At 15, he finally talked his parents into investing in a piano. "The joke was that it was my Christmas present for that year, and the next year, and the next year...."
The human voice, though, has remained his favorite instrument. Asked why he so loves to sing, he shrugs; there's no rational response. "I think it's one of those God-given gifts that's just there. And if you happen to have that talent, you just have to use it. That's how talent works."
He got his first church-music job at 15, long before he graduated from Houston Baptist University and went on to do graduate studies in choral conducting at the University of Houston. In his 30s, he came to St. Louis to be director of music at Manchester United Methodist church. (Seven years later, in 2002, the National Religious Music Week Alliance would name him as one of the top ten church music directors in the country.)
The moment he arrived in St. Louis, he began singing with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. He soon heard about the In Unison Chorus that the already legendary Robert Ray had formed the year before, for the 1994 premiere of Hannibal Peterson's African Portraits. "It wasn't supposed to last," he says, "but it went so well, they said, 'What if the chorus continues?'"
It became a perfect complement to the In Unison program the Symphony had formed in 1992. "They wanted to reach out to African- American churches in the city, several of which stood in the shadow of Powell Hall," McBeth explains. Now many: although not all: of the singers who audition for the 130-member chorus come from those churches, where their talents already have been hailed and developed.
Ray conducted the In Unison Chorus through 2010, then announced his retirement. The Symphony started a national search. "I submitted my r_sum_ and materials just like everybody else," McBeth says, recalling how he listed works he'd performed and concerts he'd conducted, provided programs and references, and compiled a DVD of himself conducting several concerts: two of which had been at Carnegie Hall.
"I just had my fifth performance at Carnegie Hall," he says now, beaming. "Works of John Rutter, the British composer. I conducted his Requiem and, oddly enough, his arrangements of a collection of African-American spirituals." How did Rutter, a white Brit, do? "He certainly captured their mood and the spirit," McBeth says. "So it was an exciting thing... it's his take on what American music means to the world."
McBeth was named director of the In Unison Chorus in January 2011. Since then he's spent every Monday evening, September through May, rehearsing on the stage of Powell Hall. In December, the chorus performed A Gospel Christmas, then immediately started rehearsing for the annual Black History Month concert, Lift Every Voice and Sing. For the spring concert, McBeth will prepare his singers to perform with guest conductor Dr. David Morrow, director of choirs at Morehouse College.
Thanks to a Monsanto Fund gift that created a Young Artists program, a few college students on scholarship sing with the chorus. McBeth's big voice directs, teaches, exhorts, and cheerleads. "So much of what a conductor does is encourage people to sing with the best possible quality they can," he says. "And as a singer, it's a wonderful thing to be able to conduct singers."
His background also helps him communicate with instrumentalists. "I stand in front of a lot of orchestras, and often I'll sing an example: This is how I think the music should sound. As a singer, I bring different things to the table." He embraces the philosophy of Robert Shaw, who the National Association of Composers and Conductors had already pronounced "America's greatest choral conductor" in 1943. "It was Shaw's take that in the best of all worlds, orchestras should sound more like choirs, and choral singers should think like orchestra members."
McBeth moves smoothly between the two groups: He's prepared choruses for performances with Sarah Brightman, Josh Groban, John McDaniel, and Andy Williams; he's conducted the Houston Civic Symphony and the New England Symphonic Ensemble.
"Most orchestra members are known for great timing and great instrumental precision," he says. "Singers are known for this wonderful, lyrical music. The best of all worlds is to have that precision and lyricism from both. That's one of the things David Robertson really pulls out of the orchestra here: intricate, rhythmical music-making that also is really beautiful.
"Working for a world-class orchestra is a choral conductor's dream."
Jeannette Cooperman is staff writer for St. Louis magazine