Classical Music

Houston Chamber Choir Sings Out Loud For Ralph Vaughan Williams

Houston Chamber Choir will pay tribute to one of the most celebrated figures in music this weekend.
Houston Chamber Choir will pay tribute to one of the most celebrated figures in music this weekend. Photo by Jeff Grass Photography
The Houston 2022-23 arts season is off to a rip-roaring start, and the Houston Chamber Choir is joining in by launching its 28th season. Its first performance is Let All the World in Every Corner Sing: Ralph Vaughan Williams @150 to commemorate the anniversary of the English composer’s birthday this Saturday at South Main Baptist Church.

Vaughan Williams may be dead and his ashes interred at Westminster Abbey, but his legacy is eternal and worldwide. This concert is chalked full of his lasting influence.

“I wanted to start this season with music of a beloved 20th century composer who fundamentally changed British music and who broke the connection that had been so strong between England and the continent. Most of the English composers felt that they were not finished unless they studied with a composer in Germany. Williams instead felt England could come back to its own roots…to the folk song tradition, to the music of the Elizabethan era,” said Bob Simpson, Houston Chamber Choir’s founder and artistic director.

Usher in change, he did. As the child of a church vicar and as musical editor of The English Hymnal, Vaughan Williams and his catalogue remind us of England’s indelible mark in the arts. He was among the first to travel into the countryside to collect folk songs and carols from singers for posterity and future enjoyment. And interestingly, even though he is oft associated with sacred music, his faith lingered somewhere between atheism and agnosticism.

Nonetheless, his music permeated the choral world.

“The person who would not otherwise have any connection to performance would hear Vaughan Williams’ pieces and say, ‘Yes, that is a part I know about choral music because I heard it growing up.’ Maybe they participated in a choir as a child, and they feel an ownership of choral music…particularly music of the church,” Simpson said. “That's one of the things we are paying tribute to, and this is the way that England’s music for the church has influenced the world…and certainly the American church. Every denomination feels a very strong debt to the English church for so many of the pieces that the choirs sing and so many hymns that the congregation sang.”

One of those hymns is the centerpiece for Houston Chamber Choir’s concert: the ethereal Mass in g minor for double choir. To complement the piece, the singers will also feature sacred and secular works by Vaughan Williams’ mentors Charles Villiers Stanford, Hubert Parry and Maurice Ravel.

The programming almost tells the story of Williams’ life.

“Vaughn Williams felt a little insecure about his technique as a young composer. He did study with English composers Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford, but he took the unusual step of going to France to study with Maurice Ravel,” Simpson said.

There is part of Vaughan Williams’ desire to grow as a musician and to take an unexpected path that is noted in the song list for those who pay attention. All three teachers have works included, ranging from Parry’s My soul, there is a country, Ravel’s Nicolette, and Stanford’s The Blue Bird.

The Houston Chamber Choir was almost prophetic when planning out this season and including Vaughan Williams’ work on the roster, especially considering his connection to England and Her Royal Majesty (bless her). With the world mourning the loss of Queen Elizabeth II, two of the performance pieces were written for her coronation in 1953.

“We're taking on a greater sense of putting his music in perspective and 1953. He was the senior British composer, and so it was logical that he'd be asked to write for the coronation. But he did something very remarkable in that he wanted to join everyone together in singing a hymn. As I understand, the congregation had never been asked to participate in a hymn until Vaughn Williams created The Old Hundredth Psalm Tune,” Simpson said.

The choir will not be alone in the celebration of Vaughan Williams. They will be accompanied by British Consul General in Houston Richard Hyde, who will speak about the composer and English music. Adding to the jubilee are special guests Paragon Brass Ensemble and organist Yuri McCoy.

It’s a pairing Simpson describes as sumptuous.

“It is like Oreos and milk…choir, brass and organ are a perfect combination when it's put into the service of grand, spectacular pieces like O clap your hands, a setting of Psalm 47 or Let all the world in every corner sing. These are pieces that are beloved by singers around the world because they're so emotionally gripping, and the brass, organ and choir increase the emotional content. You feel swept up,” Simpson said.

Houston Chamber Choir presents Let All the World in Every Corner Sing: Ralph Vaughan Williams @150 at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 24 at South Main Baptist Church, 4100 Main. For tickets or information, call 713-224-5566 or visit $10 - $40.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd