'An ensemble of consummate artistry,' 'compelling, fascinating and thoroughly entertaining,' 'superhuman pitch accuracy, clear diction and angelic musical phrases' - the plaudits are stacked high for the Houston Chamber Choir, now entering a celebratory 20th season. For its founder and artistic director Robert Simpson this brings deep satisfaction; yet as well as fashioning a choir at ease in a wide variety of repertoire, commissioning new pieces and making imaginative recordings, Simpson has also promoted and supported the work for local music educators and pioneered an education outreach programme. It makes for a hectic yet immensely rewarding work schedule - how has it been achieved from a standing start in just two decades.
When Simpson moved to Houston in 1993, as organist-choirmaster at Christ Church Cathedral, conducting and making music with others was a major interest. That the city once had a fine professional choir that many were anxious to see restored proved a strong incentive to building a new choir, but for Simpson there were other drivers at work. First, if would offer employment opportunities for some of the area's best vocal musicians, comparable to the combined teaching and professional performance career long enjoyed by instrumentalists. 'In addition,' Simpson says, 'it was important to provide Houston, America's fourth largest city, with the same excellence in choral music that it had come to expect from the Houston Symphony and Houston Grand Opera.'
And so the Houston Chamber Choir was launched, giving its first concert in 1995. From there it has gradually established itself at the forefront of choral music in the United States, dedicated to increasing the appreciation of choral music through performance, outreach and education. One of the select elite of professional, stand-alone choirs in the US, it has collaborated with an eclectic range of leading musicians, appeared at national conventions for the AGO, ACDA and Chorus America, and toured internationally. Under Simpson's direction, the choir has become a prominent part of Houston's cultural landscape, offering inspiring music delivered with great technical skill.
A central part of its success is surely its imaginative programming. From Brahms to The Beatles, Russian partsongs to Broadway hits, a period instruments performance of Bach's Mass in B minor (Houston's first) to the music of his lesser-known relative P.D.Q. - right from the start Simpson has presented ear-catching concerts with a wide range of music. The choir is equally at home in pillars of the classical repertoire like Messiah (though typically given a twist by throwing in the clarinets and French horns of Mozart's re-orchestration), or jazz, or brand new commissions. Yet Simpson rejects a 'vanilla' approach to this range. 'Clarity is essential,' he declares, 'but we retool our sound and recalibrate our musical approach for each concert,' thus striving for stylish performances perfectly crafted to the music.
In this he has cannily made use of the expertise of a range of guest conductors, who have helped develop the choir's sound and understanding. A concert marking the 500th birthday of Tallis in 2005 was led by Peter Phillips; Simon Carrington directed an all-British programme; and Paul Hillier guest-conducted a performance of modern Baltic works. 'In each case I have asked our guests to select music that is especially meaningful to them,' Simpson says. He finds that choir and audiences alike are eager to discover the musical choirces of these conductors and learn from them.
A key event in this 20th anniversary season will be a programme of music from Mexico. This in part builds on the work of Venezuelan conductor Maria Guinand, who has guided the choir in the choral music of South and Central America, but also celebrates the culture of Houston's large Mexican population. The concert will feature the musical richness of Mexico, from the 17th-century glories of New Spain to the work of contemporary composers. The varied programme reflects Simpson's tenacity in finding the right mix of pieces for his concerts, reading widely, contacting scholars and composers and digging deep on the internet. He is also including part of a recently discovered Requiem by the 18th-century composer Ignacio Jerusalem y Stella, a modern-day premiere made possible by the work of choir member and researcher Benjamin Geier.
Jazz has become a particular area of interest and expertise for the choir. In 2006 it gave a concert with the legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, luring him back to the city after a 20-year absence and performing some of his sacred choral works alongside his classic instrumental pieces. Then in May 2009 the choir presented Duke Ellington's rarely heard Third Sacred Concert, commissioned by the United Nations to mark its 25th anniversary and first performed in 1973 in Westminster Abbey, London. The choir was joined by trumpeter and Ellington band member Barrie Lee Hall, who had played in the premiere; rather wonderfully, Simpson also used the parts from the premiere, entrusted to Hall after Ellington's death. For this anniversary season, Simpson has commissioned a new work for choir and jazz ensemble from virtuoso jazz bassist Christian McBride - a brave, perhaps unexpected choice, but he is confident the choir will rise to the challenge.
From its inception the choir has commissioned new works, often from composers with strong Texas connections, such as David Ashley White, Christopher Theofanidis and Dominick DiOrio. DiOrio's dramatic and compelling A dome of many-coloured glass..., a cantata-concerto for choir and marimba setting poems by Amy Lowell, was a highlight of the 2010/11 season and a choir favourite. A compilation of these commissions forms the music on the choir's latest CD, soft blink of amber light, named after a commissioned work from Minnesota composer Jocelyn Hagan.
New commissions, Bach to Brubeck, forgotten repertoire dusted down and given new life - doesn't Simpson find it hard to build and maintain an audience? In fact not. 'Our audience enjoys our diverse repertoire and it has come to trust us, even if not initially sure what we are up to,' he explains. A professional administrative team and board of directors provide essential background support, soliciting donations, finding and retaining sponsors and organising social events to build links with audiences. There are volunteers to help at concerts and in the office. Simpson has also built links with other arts organisations in the city, for example performing Stravinsky's Les noces with Houston Ballet and Symphony of Psalms with Da Camera, Houston. It feels like an efficient and well-run entity, plugged into and serving its local community.
And perhaps one of the most impressive ways it does this is with its support for music education in the city. 'Hear the Future' is an annual festival hosted by the choir in which three local school choirs - at elementary, middle and high school level - are invited to perform. They each give a 15-minute programme, followed by a brief appearance by the Chamber Choir, and then, as Simpson puts it, 'the festival concludes with a big pizza party and everyone goes home happy.' For Choir soprano Lynelle Rowley, the festival is hugely important. 'It shows the younger singers what they can look forward to as they grow into their musical heritage,' she says. 'It's like a musicians' timeline, gathered up and displayed for the enjoyment of all.' Simpson is equally committed: 'There are music educators who, despite all odds, are doing a wonderful job and they deserve to be recognised.'
In the second project, 'Rise Up Singing,' members of the choir work with pupils at the local elementary Rusk School, giving a weekly session of vocal instruction and music theory, using folksongs from around the world as core repertoire. It is based on the principle that only by making music over an extended period of time can a child develop a life-long connection - as Simpson tells me, 'we traded big numbers for big results.' The response has been overwhelming. 'Fifth grade boys rush into the rehearsal clamouring to sing,' Simpson says, while school staff marvel at the programme's positive impact. There are plans to expand it to two more school next year and five after that.
'For 20 years,' Simpson says, 'our destination has always been whatever is just over the hill ahead.' It is a sense of purpose that has kep him focused on the core aims of his choir, as well as developing new paths and finding new challenges. Whatever lies over the next hill for this group, it seems certain that it will be met with great skill and confidence, resulting musical artistry of the highest order.
David Blackwell is co-editor for Carols for Choirs book 5 (OUP, 2001).
Blackwell, David. "A Man of Purpose." Choir & Organ. November/December 2015: 85-88. Print.