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Houston Chamber Choir Summons Patron Saint of Music in Season Finale

The Houston Chamber Choir and Apollo Chamber Players have teamed up for a specially commissioned piece for the choir's 25th anniversary.EXPAND
The Houston Chamber Choir and Apollo Chamber Players have teamed up for a specially commissioned piece for the choir's 25th anniversary.
Photo by Jeff Grass Photography
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The Houston Chamber Choir will perform "A Time to Draw Closer," the season finale of the Grammy Award-winning ensemble's 2020-21 virtual season, on May 9 under the direction of Founder and Artistic Director Bob Simpson. Of special note, the concert will include the world premiere of "The Passion of St. Cecilia," a work composed by Mark Buller and specially commissioned for the choir's 25th anniversary. The three-movement work relates to the legend of the patron saint of music and musicians. The acclaimed chamber music ensemble Apollo Chamber Players will join the choir for this performance.  

"To be asked to write a piece for the 25th anniversary is such an honor. Bob asked me to be involved about a year ago, just as we were all realizing the extent the pandemic would reshape the way we approach music. It was interesting timing because in the face of this really uncertain future — especially for singing groups where things didn’t look great - he left it open ended. I could choose whatever topic I wanted. In the face of the pandemic, shutdown and despair, I decided to go this direction," Buller said.

To understand how the story of St. Cecilia is a fitting choice for inspiration, one must first know a little about the woman. Thankfully, Simpson gave a Cliff Notes version of her story.

"Her history is wrapped in legend and folklore, but basically St. Cecilia was the daughter of a noble person and was about to be married to someone she didn't love. She had a religious conviction that she'd give her life to God, and when it turns out she was being married, she found herself protected by an angel that appeared. The story was that her husband didn't see the angel, and he sent them off on a trek where he becomes enlightened enough to see the angel, and they become martyred together," he said.

The three movements of the piece become richer and more developed as the piece progresses and Cecilia's story unfolds.

In the first movement, "We meet Cecilia as she is about to be betrothed. Mark has created this wonderful cluster of tones that are an expression of her love, her desperation, her overwhelming joy and sorrow, and it's a magical moment. That then leads to the second section where she's defiant. The lyrics say, 'I will not wed as property passed between one man to another.' She accepts her fate but doesn't give up on her religious convictions. In the third movement, the story moves to the present. The lyrics make a veiled reference to what we've been going through in the pandemic, and we are reminded of the offering that Cecilia originally made. Through her story, we're inspired to sing our own song in desperate times. It ends with a beautiful, strong chord that releases all the emotions that have been built up in this piece in a positive and joyful way," Simpson explained.

While Buller composed the music, the lyrics were written by Charles Anthony "Tony" Silvestri. Buller and Silvestri have a storied past, having previously worked on four operas together and forming a close relationship in the process.

"Tony has a lot of experience in the choral world. He’s a singer himself, so he understands really well the specific needs of singers and choirs. He considers things as detailed as phrases that last just long enough to be easily sung in one breath. Then, the more he works with a composer, the more he internalizes that composer’s style. For example, he knows when he writes a compelling word, it’s one I’m going to sit on musically. He knows where I’ll put the high notes, so he knows to put an open vowel in the text. He knows all the ins and outs," Buller said. "Tony and I have a really easy partnership now, and we both know what to expect out of each other. While the work is hard, you know your partner in creativity is going to give you something good, so there’s a trust there. Basically, he makes my job much easier."

Mark Buller is the composer who wrote the 10 minute piece that will debut this weekend with Houston Chamber Choir and Apollo Chamber Players.EXPAND
Mark Buller is the composer who wrote the 10 minute piece that will debut this weekend with Houston Chamber Choir and Apollo Chamber Players.
Photo by Micah Stansell

As a bonus, "A Time to Draw Closer" will include a new recording and video production of "The Road Home" by Stephen Paulus, a past favorite performance video, and a behind-the-scenes conversation about the creation and premiere of “The Passion of St. Cecilia” with the composer, librettist and the artistic directors of the Houston Chamber Choir and Apollo Chamber Players.

As this performance closes out Houston Chamber Choir's 2020-21 season, the choir director feels the season is ending on a high note, especially considering the twists and turns COVID-19 has wrought for the performing arts. At the start of the pandemic, the organization launched a podcast to bring music to people's lives, if only for a brief few minutes each day. Then, the choir started figuring out ways to perform music, which included rehearsing in outdoor spaces, recording songs while socially distanced, and setting the recordings to a lip synced performance - not unlike how music videos are made for television.

"I am so impressed with how Houston Chamber Choir has risen to the occasion. The musicians have been unflappable. They've handled everything with grace and artistry, and the staff has been unimaginable beyond words. When the world stopped, we knew we needed to make music, and we had to discover how. We were a part of that small group of people who are super spreaders: singers. We were desperate to make any music this season, and little by little the scientists helped us to make sense of everything. We knew the format had to change though. It's a blessing that we've become fast learners," Simpson said.

He concluded, "It's really a tribute to the creativity and ingenuity of our musicians and staff to overcome obstacles and still perform music that is made in person. We didn't record at home and alone. We committed to doing it in person, and we wore masks and stood apart. Then we went outdoors where we could stand further apart and give the visual component to the work while we lip synced. Coming to the end of this season — which just sped by — there were so many moments where we didn't know where we'd go next, and now we're in the final moment where we could stand together. It is such a homecoming for our hearts as well as our voices."

"A Time to Draw Closer" premieres at 2 p.m. on May 9 and will be available on the Houston Chamber Choir's Digital Stage through August 31. All five concerts in the ensemble's 2020-21 season are also available online. For more information, visit houstonchamberchoir.org. Rent one concert for $9.99, purchase access to one concert for one year for $24.99, or subscribe to the entire season's concerts for $40.

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