The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra's Lift Every Voice: Black History Month Celebration honors two artists of historic stature within the local community: Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISONÔÎ Chorus Director Robert Ray and the late Kenneth Billups.
Ray will conduct his 1978 composition Gospel Mass, which has been performed more than 300 times on the world concert stage. Also, in a ceremony before the concert, the SLSO will formally recognize the contributions of Billups, whose high-concept work with area choirs laid the groundwork for the founding of the Saint LouisChorus, as well as the partnership between the Orchestra and local African American churches, a partnership that led to the creation of the Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus.
In Gospel Mass, Ray exposes 2,000 years of liturgical tradition to what he has described as "the sense of joy and celebration that is generally felt in true African American worship." The piece is now categorized as a "classic" by its publisher, Hal Leonard Publications, due to its strong continued sales in both national and international markets.
Ray premiered the piece in 1978 with the University of Illinois-Urbana Campus Black Chorus. Gospel Mass has been performed twice by the Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus at Carnegie Hall (in 1998 and 2002) and all over the country by ensembles such as the Cleveland Orchestra and Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. In the summer of 2000, the Europa Cantat (the European federation of young choirs) included Gospel Mass in its repertoire on a world tour that culminated at the World Expo in Hanover, Germany, and included concerts in France and Belgium.
On February 9, 2008, the performance of Ray's Gospel Mass will be recorded for potential internet release. "The forces are all right for doing a recording of Gospel Mass now," Ray says. "We have a great orchestra in the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, and the IN UNISON Chorus is sounding great. These are major factors in terms of having the quality I want to have on the recording." Ray says the orchestra will feature full sections of strings and winds, with added brass. The Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus, which Ray has directed since its debut in 1994, features choral singers from more than thirty local African American churches. Also featured will be local tenor Michael Walker and local contralto Sylvia Dunn Ray, the composer's wife, who was featured soloist for the Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus both times Gospel Mass was performed at Carnegie Hall.
Naturally, Ray is excited to prepare the chorus to record, for the first time, what has become considered as his master work. But he is, if anything, more eager to see Kenneth Billups recognized by the Symphony. The ceremony will include the installation of Billups's portrait on the walls of great conductors and guest artists at Powell Symphony Hall.
"Billups was a major player in the orchestra's development," Ray says. "The fact that we now have a symphony chorus is basically because of him."
Billups was the long-time head of the Music Department at Sumner High School, director of music for the St. Louis Public School District, and founder and director of the Legend Singers. As such, he influenced several generations of St. Louis musicians. A section of Pendleton Avenue, running west from Sumner High School, is named in his honor, Kenneth Billups Avenue. And now, his face will appear with such great artists as Serge Rachmaninoff, Leontyne Pryce, and Itzhak Perlman on the walls of Powell Symphony Hall, formalizing his role in the history of the Symphony's development.
Ray knew Billups personally and performed with him as a chorister, as well as in choruses Billups arranged for the Symphony before the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus came into being. Ray was also a piano accompanist with the Legend Singers.
"I graduated from Beaumont in 1963, so I wasn't at Sumner with him," Ray recalls, "but I accompanied his professional group and sang with his choir and the Symphony. He always could pull together major talents from all over the area. He was a major force in St. Louis music for 15 or 20 years."
Ray will honor Billups in the repertoire for the Black History Month concert as well. He is including Billups' arrangement of "Every Time I Feel the Spirit" in a set of spirituals that also will feature arrangements by Moses Hogan and Adolphus Hailstork, an African American composer whose credits include the opera Joshua's Boots, commissioned by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 1999.
As befits a legendary member of the community, Billups will be recognized by the Symphony at the request of the community. Ray says the suggestion to recognize Billups originated in the IN UNISON Chorus's Advisory Board. "Many of our Advisory Board members knew Billups and had worked under him," Ray says. "They came up with the idea, and the folks at the orchestra just said, 'Great. It's a great idea‹and long overdue.'"
Lift Every Voice: Black History Month Celebration takes place at Powell Symphony Hall, Saturday, February 9 at 7:30pm.
Chris King is the editor of the St. Louis American.