Maria A. Ellis wanted the audience to be aware of one rule Tuesday night before she stepped onto the podium and picked up her baton at the center of the stage at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.
Members of the University of Missouri–St. Louis Orchestra, Wind Ensemble, UMSL Brass, University Singers, Vocal Point and community gospel choir Voice of Jubilation all readied themselves behind her as Ellis shared that important guidance.
“There are opportunities where you’ll be able to clap,” Ellis told those seated before her. “We want you to clap on beat.”
Seconds later, the orchestra came to life and the voices of the three ensembles soon followed, filling the Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall as they sang the first of six parts of composer Robert Ray’s “Gospel Mass” during a tribute concert to the longtime UMSL faculty member, who passed away in December at the age of 76.
Several hundred people – including members of Ray’s own family, seated in the front row – were on hand for the performance in what was the first of three shows planned this week during the UMSL Music Fall Festival.
The Department of Music is also hosting the Steinway Extravaganza, featuring soprano Christine Brewer, on Thursday, and a performance of “Panoramas” by the Arianna String Quartet on Friday as part of the festival, which is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the UMSL’s founding.
It was appropriate to kick off the week of music by honoring Ray and highlighting his work.
“Robert will always be in our hearts as he helped to shape and direct the UMSL Department of Music,” Professor and department chair Joanna Mendoza said as she welcomed the crowd and set the stage for the evening. “His legacy will live on in the fabric of our musical community, both here at UMSL and throughout St. Louis.”
Ray was a gifted composer and educator who taught piano for more than two decades at UMSL as an associate professor. He also served as the founding director of the IN UNISON Chorus with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
“I had known about and revered Dr. Ray all the way back to my own college days,” said Associate Professor Jim Henry, UMSL’s director of choral studies, as he described coming to interview for his position and meeting Ray at UMSL in 2004. “You should never meet your heroes, so reads an old adage. Now whoever came up with that clearly never met Robert Ray. Here was this internationally renowned composer, conductor, pianist, teacher and lecturer, the founder of the St. Louis Symphony’s IN UNISON Chorus, the man who toured the world as the piano accompanist for two of the world’s greatest and most famous African American baritones – William Warfield and Robert McFerrin – the man who crafted the ‘Gospel Mass’ and ‘He Never Failed Me Yet’, for many years the top selling piece in the entire Hal Leonard catalog. In addition to all of those great accomplishments, he was one of the kindest, most giving, most approachable, most supportive, most beautiful souls I’ve ever been blessed to know.”
Henry made those remarks just before directing University Singers in the premier of “They That Wait Open The Lord Shall Renew Their Strength,” by UMSL graduate and former Ray student Rollo Dilworth, now a professor of music at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance.
University Singers returned to the stage later in the evening to sing Ray’s “He Never Failed Me Yet” alongside Voices of Jubilation in the group’s concert debut. The community gospel choir began weekly rehearsals on Sept. 5 and includes UMSL students, staff, faculty, alumni and community members.
But the highlight of the night might have been their performance of Ray’s “Gospel Mass,” featuring solos by Miranda Bell, Eve Hill and Arissa Ford-Jones while accompanied by keyboardist Timothy Clark, bassist William Bell, drummer Christopher Bell as well as the orchestra, wind ensemble and brass. The audience did a good job heeding Ellis’ instruction, keeping on beat as they clapped along with the soulful and soaring notes.
Find more photos of Tuesday night’s Robert Ray Tribute concert on the UMSL’s Flickr page.