Houston Chamber Choir Unearths a Classic Classic

Modern-day audiences are about to hear the premiere of a work...that's 317 years old.

Later this month, the Houston Chamber Choir, which has uncovered a composition by forgotten Italian master Giovanni Paolo Colonna, will debut the first contemporary performance of Psalmi ad Vesperas (1694). According to HCC founder and artistic director Robert Simpson, the idea to tackle the composition was sort of an accident.

Last year, Simpson, during the planning of the 2010-2011 season, noticed that the 16-year-old group hadn't interpreted too many works by late 17th century Italian composers. He ended up turning to Dr. Anne Schnoebelen, a Rice University Shepherd School of Music professor emeritus who had edited one of Colonna's masses for her doctoral thesis. Houston Chamber Choir performed that work last season as a "warm-up to Vesperas," says Simpson.

About the approximately 90-minute number, written during Colonna's final year of breathing air on this planet, Simpson explains, "[The piece] magnificently blends polyphony -- the way that individual lines are threaded together to form a whole from individual melodies. It's very dramatic with all kinds of stereophonic effects and these beautiful melodies."

If audiences hear textures that ping-pong and loom in the white spaces, that's because Colonna wrote the piece to be sung at a massive building that boasted a ten-second reverberation.

Simpson was also able to cull more particulars about Colonna's score by speaking in detail with the work's editor Pyrros Bamichas, an Athens, Greece scholar who found the composition and posted it to an online message board.

The work, featuring five soloists, a five-part choir and a string ensemble, will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, October 29, at St. Philip Presbyterian Church, 4807 San Felipe. For more information, check out the Houston Chamber Choir website.

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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen