A Vocal Concern

For close to 15 years, Robert Simpson has been nurturing an ambition. A longtime director of church choirs who studied his craft in New York and Germany, Simpson felt a desire to move from the sacred to the secular. It's not that he wanted to give up his churchly duties; he just wanted to throw in a little non-religious music on the side.

What he had in mind was a chamber choir, the vocal equivalent, as he puts it, "of a sports car. The huge choir, the symphony choirs, the 100 or more person assemblies -- they're fine for what they do, but they can't turn on a dime. They can't be delicate in the same way. They just don't sound the same."

Only problem was, Simpson lived at the time in Atlanta, which is the home base of Robert Shaw, perhaps the most influential American choral director of this century. Raising up something distinctive in Shaw's shadow was a daunting notion. So Simpson's ambition remained tamped down. Until, that is, he was tendered an offer to take over as organist-choirmaster at Hous-ton's Christ Church Cathedral.

"Actually, my job in Atlanta was much broader. I had seven choirs to deal with," says Simpson now. "But I saw in Houston the opportunity to do something I'd always wanted to do, which was start a professional chamber choir."

That's why, on a sultry summer evening after most of Houston's citizens have fled downtown, Simpson is waving his arms in front of 16 seated men and women who stare at him intently and then open their mouths to begin to shape the notes of Tchaikovsky's "The Golden Cloud," a work almost never heard outside the borders of Russia. The song begins, rises on a delicious melody that floats out the open windows of a practice room on the second floor of Christ Church Cathedral, and then suddenly collapses. "No, no, no," Simpson says with a tone of practiced patience. "The notes aren't dropping like stones, drop, drop, drop. They're flowing." He pulls an invisible silken string downward through the air. "They're flowing."

The Houston Chamber Choir, as Simpson named his ensemble, has been practicing like this since early April, with an eye toward a late June concert that would introduce them to the city's choral fans. The 22 singers who make up the complete choir were selected following a series of auditions that began shortly after Easter -- and which drew more than 70 applicants. "I was prepared to start the choir with as few as 12 members," Simpson says. "My wife, Marianna, is a choral conductor who studied in Russia, and she and I listened to the auditions together. We had a high standard; we knew the kind of singer we wanted. And if we could have found only a dozen, we would have been happy. But we found 22, and it was pretty competitive to cut it down to that."

What Simpson had found is that Houston has, if not an usually strong choral tradition, some unusually strong choral interests. There is, he notes, the established Houston Symphony Chorus and the Masterwork Chorus, both of which have distinct followings. And there was also the Concert Choral, a small choral assembly similar to what Simpson is attempting -- and an assembly that went out of business due to money problems.

To avoid that particular trap, both Simpson and his singers have agreed to take no salary during the Choir's first year, in the hope that if there's a second the funding will allow the performers to be paid. He's also determined to give the Choir a distinct identity, whether through performing unusual pieces such as the one by Tchaikovsky or through the introduction of what's known as early music -- medieval works that bridge the gap from plain song (such as that sung by the monks who made a surprise hit of Chant) to the works of Bach. They've also recognized that the first year will be about creating recognition for themselves as well as creating music.

"There's a great sense of energy and excitement; you can hear it from the singers," says Simpson. "But you can also hear that there's still much work to be done." Our first concert is going to be like a snapshot of a work in progress, and when we begin our regular season in the fall our job is going to be to prove that we're worthy of the allegiance of those who are looking for something a little different in choral music. And I think, or I hope, they'll find that we're definitely worth coming out to hear."

The Houston Chamber Choir performs at 5 p.m. Sunday, June 25 at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, 6221 South Main. Tickets are $10. Call 222-2595 for info.

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Mitchell J. Shields