Why does Houston need a professional choir?
It's a question Robert Simpson, founder and artistic director of the Houston Chamber Choir, fielded often back in 1995, when for every one person who said, “Please bring a professional choir back to Houston,” there was another around to say, “We tried it. It didn’t work. Save your time.”
Luckily, Simpson ignored the naysayers and was rewarded when the choir was named the 2018 recipient of the prestigious Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence, as was announced on April 6.
The Margaret Hillis Award, named for the legendary founder of the Chicago Symphony Chorus whom Simpson credits as “a fundamental force in bringing women to the forefront of conducting in the choral art,” is given by the Washington, D.C.-based service organization Chorus America. Eligibility rotates every three years, with the 2018 award going to a professional chorus that has achieved a high level of artistic quality while maintaining an equally high level of financial stability and a commitment to outreach and education.
So, not only is it a bit of a waiting game, but with past winners such as Chanticleer and Cantus, to say it is competitive would be an understatement.
“I did prepare myself,” says Simpson. “There are really some wonderful, wonderful choirs out there [and] if this wasn’t our time, well, it wasn’t our time. I would just be happy for the others.”
While serving on another Chorus America award panel, Simpson learned that a winner would likely be notified on March 30, so he did what anyone else would do: He carried his phone with him everywhere starting on March 28.
When the phone finally did ring on Good Friday, the caller ID showed Alexandria, Virginia; Chorus America President and CEO Catherine Dehoney was on the line; and Simpson recalls her saying, “Well Bob, I’m about to make you a very happy man.”
The award offers even more validation to Simpson, who admits that it is not easy maintaining a professional choir in the United States, where singing is often seen as a volunteer activity. But Simpson stresses the need for “a place for those who have gone to universities and conservatories to study voice, who know their voices like the violinist knows their instrument” as his singers do, frequently moving from early music to jazz – with stops everywhere in between – while tackling different tone qualities and approaches to articulation and text.
Simpson can’t say enough about his singers or their skill, but he defers to what Christian McBride – artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival, multiple Grammy Award winner and host of NPR’s Jazz Night in America – said after his first run-through with the Choir: “You know, now I’m really nervous.”
Simpson laughs, asking, “What higher compliment can you get?”
Chorus America noted not only the diversity of the ensemble’s repertoire, but the choir's rich history of collaboration, which Simpson says he takes pride in as well – from jazz greats like McBride and Dave Brubeck to the many guest conductors and commissioned composers the choir has welcomed over the years, not to mention their collaborations with local sister organizations like Da Camera, Ars Lyrica, Mercury and ROCO.
“It’s hard to name an organization we haven’t partnered with,” says Simpson, adding that the choir will add Musiqa to the list this coming season. “I grew up in the Northeast and came here after many years in other parts of the country. It’s clear that one of the great things about this city is its people and its heart, and that comes through in the arts community as well. There’s no turf issue, there are no worries about who’s getting more of this or more of that. We really are rooting for each other, and that sense of mutual support and interplay comes through in our collaborations.”
The collaborations continue next month when the choir welcomes Jamie Bernstein back to Houston for Tonight, Tonight Won't Be Just Any Night: Lenny @ 100, a tribute to her father, Leonard Bernstein, on his 100th birthday, featuring a selection of music that pulls from both his classical side and his Broadway successes, from the “Missa brevis” he created for Robert Shaw to West Side Story.
“The thrill of his music will be increased immeasurably by the fact that Jamie will be talking about what her life was like,” says Simpson. “She’s going to really give us an inside look at Lenny and how his music and his life come together. She will be able to put words to that.”
As the choir’s 22nd season comes to a close and Simpson looks toward their 23rd, he is asked once again to answer the million-dollar question, for anyone who might still have any doubts: Why does Houston need a professional choir?
“I fell in love with singing as a volunteer in my church choir, and then college, but just as there is a place for a professional orchestra to provide the kinds of performances that only trained musicians can provide in the instrumental side, there is also a need for that on the choral side,” explains Simpson.
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“Houston is a remarkably sophisticated city and its arts community is second to none. I feel there is a deep sense of appreciation for the arts in Houston and a real discrimination so we know what good is. Within that, Houston deserves to have the widest range of offerings, and so without a professional choir we would be missing out on one important aspect of the music world.”
For much of the 17th and 18th century, choral music was the center of the musical universe, with all the great composers writing for the choir. And if it was good enough for Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms, certainly it’s good enough for Houston.
The Houston Chamber Choir concludes their 22nd season with Tonight, Tonight Won't Be Just Any Night: Lenny @ 100 scheduled for 7:30 p.m. May 12 at South Main Baptist Church, 4100 Main. For information, call 713-224-5566 or visit houstonchamberchoir.org. $10 to $40.