As this issue of Urban Views Weekly goes to press, citizens nationwide are lining up at the polls to claim their right and responsibility in the process of democracy. Meanwhile, on Grove Avenue, more than 130 singers line up to rehearse, so that after the ballots are cast and counted, they can make their own melodic contributions to democratic endeavors. They are One Voice Chorus, a Richmond-based choir that is open to everyone and requires no audition. Like the greatest leader, One Voice has a meaningful calling: “Our mission is to seek healing between Americans of African and European descent through great choral music,” says Artistic Director McCune.
On Nov. 15, Associate Conductor Frank Williams will join McCune in leading One Voice Chorus and a full orchestra in “Bringing out the Best: Beethoven, Brahms, and Burleigh” at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. Concert pianist Awadagin Pratt will perform, including in a piece composed by African American composer and concert pianist Glenn Burleigh, who was widely admired for his blending of classical and gospel styles.
Pratt’s participation is big news for a big chorus. Getting the world-class pianist on the bill was somewhat of a long shot. But when McCune explained the mission of One Voice, Awadagin signed on. “It just worked out from there,” McCune says. “We consider ourselves incredibly fortunate to be able to have someone like him come in. It’s kind of a big step for us, a new step for us.”
The public is invited to arrive an hour early and take part in a pre-concert dialogue about how to help cultivate racial harmony. During the performance, a large screen will feature images of fine art and photography. The audience size is expected to number around 1,000 and reflect racial diversity not often seen in Richmond-area choral concerts. McCune says, “The bottom line is that we just were convinced that music could become a channel that could bring our two communities together in a non-threatening way that also is not focused on trying to delve into huge societal issues. We really don’t address that. Our major goal is to bring the people together. So every Monday night, we have about a hundred or so folks who choose to come together for no other reason than to put on something beautiful and powerful.”
It’s powerful, alright. McCune says that One Voice is the only community chorus who regularly perform with a full orchestra. And last year, the group performed Handel’s “Messiah,” an oratorio that is demanding enough to make professional chorales think carefully before taking it on. “We’re committed to the premise that we can make great music with just us folks,” he says.
Although McCune says that racial balance in the chorus has happened as a matter of course, he admits that the group has taken deliberate steps to ensure the same in their leadership and orchestra. “Two years ago we made a decision to integrate the orchestra. We really are about the only entity around that purposely integrates the orchestra in the Richmond area. The Petersburg Symphony is very much an integrated organization, and they have been for a long time,” McCune makes clear. “But in Richmond itself, that really doesn’t happen much.”
The debut of One Voice represents today’s mission. Seven years ago McCune was talking with retired public school teacher Barbara Baynham, the longtime director of music at Jackson Ward’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. They discovered they shared a vision of an inter-racial choir whose goal was to nurture racial harmony. Barbara brought in her choir from Ebenezer, and Glen, who was then musical director of St. Giles Presbyterian, involved his. Their summer concert was titled “One Voice,” opened with Schubert’s Mass in C with chamber orchestra, and closed with Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass with piano, bass and drums. “Barbara was very wise in bringing the two groups together,” McCune says. “If it had not been for her, there would probably not be a One Voice Chorus. She’s just a wonderful person.” Later, they took their name from that debut concert, and in 2004, incorporated as an independent non-profit organization. One Voice performs three concerts yearly.
While One Voice rose from two church communities and currently rehearses at St. Giles, McCune emphasizes their independence. “We certainly have our founding in church roots. But we have a good number of members who are not from the faith-based community. They are just extremely welcome,” he says.
With the high-profile participation of Awadagin Pratt, the group’s work will likely begin to receive more attention. That’s fine with them. “We’d like to see One Voice expand its role,” McCune admits. “We’re very well known in certain little pockets. We’re not very well known outside those pockets. We are tying to take some steps to become more visible.
But one goal remains firmly, confidently unchanged: “We right now reflect roughly the same racial balance as the Richmond metro area,” McCune says, “which frankly, we feel extremely good about.”
Info 231-0324 www.OneVoiceChorus.org
“Bringing out the Best: Brahms, Beethoven, and Burleigh” at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, Nov. 15, 7 p.m. Tickets, $5 – $15 Avail. through www.OneVoiceChorus.org Info 231-0324
by Cesca Janece Waterfield
As a teen, Awadagin Pratt declined tennis scholarships to accept one for violin. He has performed at Lincoln Center, as well as at the White House, and on the children’s television show, “Sesame Street.” www.Awadagin.com