Last spring, as David Robertson was taking time to get to know his new home in between rehearsals of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, he visited one of the IN UNISON® churches, Antioch Baptist, on the city's north side. "I went to Antioch Baptist Church," he recalls, "and had an extraordinary time listening to the In Unison Chorus and being part of that experience, which to me is one that is absolutely essential in being music director in this community."
When the SLSO sought to develop closer relationships in the city in the 1990s, it began with its neighbors. The neighborhood around Powell Symphony Hall is primarily an African American community, and the very heart of that community can be found in churches such as Antioch Baptist. The union of church and orchestra is a very natural one, for with both, music is central. Members of the SLSO began to visit what became known as the In Unison churches, giving lectures, workshops, and recitals. In 1994 the In Unison Chorus became part of the community program‹another natural extension of the developing relationship. From five In Unison churches in 1992, the program now includes more than 30 African American churches in the community. In Unison church members are eligible for tuition discounts to area music camps, music scholarships to the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and other benefits. The Gospel Christmas has become a sold-out event each holiday season. The Black History Month concert, which returns Tuesday, February 21, at Powell Hall, has become an honored SLSO tradition.
The roots of that tradition may be found in the churches themselves. Antioch Baptist is a good place to experience, as did David Robertson last spring, what an In Unison church is and does.
On a Sunday morning during the Christmas season, parking is quickly become hard to find around the church. The building recently went through a renovation, adding a new, two-tiered auditorium to the old brick foundation. Carole Kimble warmly greets visitors in the lobby. Kimble is a member of the In Unison Chorus, as are a number of those in the Antioch Baptist Choir. She quickly introduces the Reverend William Collins Jr. who has been pastor of the church for more than 40 years. When he takes a visitor's hand, he does not so much shake it as hold it comfortingly. "I'm celebrating my last year as pastor," he says with a smile, "and they're celebrating my leaving."
"Oh no, we're not," says Kimble.
SLSO violinist Charlene Clark is scheduled to play during the service today. "Charlene is from this church," says Kimble. "We are so proud of her."
"Charlene's one of our own," Rev. Collins agrees with a smile.
Clark grew up in this church. She began her violin studies at the age of five with Charles Slavik in Edwardsville, attended music camps, and went on to receive a degree in music education from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. After teaching instrumental music in St. Louis County schools, she won her audition as a first violinist with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1968. Having grown up only a few blocks away from Powell Hall, Clark was the first African American to join the orchestra.
When Clark does arrive, a few minutes before the Sunday service begins, she looks not the least bit rushed as she takes her seat near the choir.
A Christmas pageant is slated for today and children are scurrying through the hallways and on the stairs dressed in bright costumes, some of the younger ones dressed as lambs.
"Father God," says Deaconess Rhonda Reynolds, standing before the congregation, "have your way in this church today."
It is perhaps obvious, but so obvious we fail to recognize, how music is such an integral part to religious devotion. Is there a world religion without music? Is such a thing imaginable?
Two young boys take up the great spiritual, "Go Tell It on the Mountain," and at the close of each phrase they must lift their voices to a higher register. Many of the older members of the congregation smile and shake their heads at one another, gently laughing at how the boys strain.
A member of the chorus rises to sing "Sweet Little Jesus Boy." When she poignantly sings the verse, "The world treats you mean Lord / Treats me mean too. / But that's how it is down here," many of those in the congregation nod their heads. A few say, "That's right."
Clark stands with her violin and plays a Christmas medley during the offertory. "Silent Night," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," and "Joy to the World" fill the church with Clark's sweet, warm tones.
Rev. Collins stands before his congregation and says, "We thank God for one more day." He introduces the guest speaker, the Reverend Wilbert Goatley of Calvary Baptist Church‹yet another In Unison church. Goatley's sermon, appropriately enough, is titled "What Makes Your Soul Sing?"
Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.