The Chamber Choir Makes a Fifth Recording!

The Houston Chamber Choir is thrilled to announce their plans to record the complete choral works of Maurice Duruflé this June! I sat down with our Artistic Director and Founder, Robert Simpson, to discuss this exciting recording project.

Briefly describe the choral works of Duruflé and the process of making a recording.

The choral works of Duruflé, like the organ works of Duruflé, are very small in number, but were extensively revised and written and rewritten until he was completely satisfied. He was someone who rethought and re-configured music right up to the time he had to let go of it, and as a result the music has a sense of being very natural and every note in place. It sings beautifully because he had…the experiences as a boy of becoming very familiar with Gregorian chant…chant influences everything that he wrote and his music, even when not based on chant, has a certain ebb and flow that is very reminiscent of chant. But in fact chant does figure largely in his works. The Messe “Cum jubilo” for men’s voices that we’ll be singing is based on the plainsong mass…and the four a cappella motets are all based on Gregorian chant themes. And he uses extensive quotes from chant also in the Requiem.

The process of making a recording is as different from live performance as live performance is to rehearsal. This is one of the reasons why it was so important that we make this recording this season although we’re a full season away from the performance; to be able to establish the kind of finesse that is necessary to have any kind of prevalent recording requires coming to a very high level of performance and then going above that. The thing about recordings is that you have the option of listening to the same passage over and over and over again and what might slip by in performance…becomes a train wreck on repeated hearings, or becomes annoying, and becomes detrimental actually of the overall effectiveness to the CD. So, getting this CD done now was really important. And also having the opportunity to do it at Rice [University’s] Edythe Bates Old Recital Hall…[it] is a very unique building. It was designed specifically for the organ and has, as a result, a very rich, resonant acoustic. There are curtains that lower and raise on the sides to be able to affect the amount of reverberation. But even at its driest, it’s still very warm compared to most churches, or certainly concert halls. And then the organ itself was designed specifically as a French instrument. On top of that, Ken Cowan, the Professor of Organ there, is a remarkably talented young person who, among other things, is very, very gifted at performing French romantic music. So when you take our choir and put that choir in that room, with that organ, with that organist, you’ve got a combination that is, quite frankly, quite special. And as a result, I really think that this recording will bring a performance of real value to those that are already available.

What makes these pieces so special and why record them?

Well, these pieces are well-known. We have done four recordings in the past and the music on those has been universally either unknown, or brand new. Bringing back works of the 16th century with Colonna…is one thing, recording commissions as we did on soft blink [of amber light] is fabulous, but this recording takes us into the realm of what is known and loved. And as a result, there is a special responsibility on us to not just produce another recording, but to do something special and that’s a heavy weight; that’s something that I feel very excited but responsible for as well. We will not make the pieces special; the pieces are already special. They have become beloved pieces to anyone lucky enough to sing them. The Ubi caritas alone would probably keep Duruflé’s name alive for generation after generation. So the reason that these pieces are special is because Duruflé was not only so gifted but he was so thorough and so insistent on every last aspect of these pieces being just right. The reason that I think it’s important for us to make a recording is because we’ve got this very unique convergence of pieces, venue, musicians, [and] collaborators to be able to take this music and bring an interpretation to it that will, perhaps, give people a new understanding or new appreciation of its emotional depth.

Why do you feel recordings in general are so important?

Well, recordings in general are important because they document the interpretations of a major artist; we refer back to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, both the ones that were recorded at the beginning of his career and at the end of his career as one example of treasures that are landmarks that we have to both study and revere. So recordings can be special because they document significant interpreters. They can also be special because they give a wider audience to less known or less appreciated music, and then there is the recording as an opportunity for instrumentalists or choral musicians or individuals to be able to take their music and share it with a wide number of people throughout the world. In live concert you can only reach those who are within an easy distance of the concert hall, but a recording will allow the performance to travel far and wide. And for the Houston Chamber Choir, it’s important for us to make recordings for artistic reasons, but also it’s an important part of allowing our brand, our music, our approach to making music to be familiar to those who would never be able to hear us in person.

What makes this particular group of singers so special?

This choir is now at the end of its 21st season and every group has been special. But I will say that there has been a steady progression of talent and experience that has taken the choir to being an ensemble that has become more and more able to make music at a consistently high level. This group of people is as fine as any group we’ve had and our performances this season have been more consistently refined than ever before. We’ve had a record of singing beautifully, but there’s something about the combination of voices and combination of personalities this year that has allowed us to make music even more passionately and perhaps technically more refined and it’s our goal to continue. And part of that is that we’ve had singers now in the choir for ten or more years, so they are no longer wondering what I’m looking for. They know exactly what I’m looking for and they know how to offer it. But at the same token, I’ve worked with them and I know what they’re capable of and I can just make a suggestion and I know it’s going to trigger the imagination of these people and they can take it in directions that I had not anticipated at first and I am actually stunned and delighted to hear. Wow, how wonderful that we’ve come to a place that we would only have gotten to with the joining of our two talents, with our two approaches. So it’s definitely ‘the sum is greater than the total of the parts’ for any organization like this.

Do the Chamber Choir members enjoy the choral works of Duruflé?

Yes, there is always an energy surrounding concerts. And sometimes that energy is one of having been taken to literature that they found challenging and interesting and they’re glad they had a chance to do it, but they’re not looking forward to doing it again anytime soon. And then there are concerts where people come away saying, ‘Oh, I can’t stand the thought that we will be leaving this behind.’ And Duruflé and [Bach’s] B-minor Mass are two that immediately come in mind that understandably the singers came away saying, ‘Oh, what a great experience and I wish we could do it again soon.’ So yes, coming back to the Duruflé is something that I think we’re all happy to be able to do.

What are some challenges when making a recording?

Well, because of the nature of the recording where there is a series of repetitions, it’s easy without a great deal of care that the performances can either start to become stilted or less inspiring. Energy and pacing the flow of energy is very key in a recording. And one of the things that we have going for us is a multi-Grammy winning producer, Blanton Alspaugh, who won another series of Grammy’s this last go-round. When we get into the recording session, my job is to inspire the choir, but it’s his job to pace the recordings and to know when the choir has given its last best take - “[They’re] ready to move on to something else, we can come back to it tomorrow night.” I don’t make those choices. He’s the one that says cut or stop. If I hear something and I think “hmm” I just let it go because it’s not my call. I just keep conducting and we keep singing until he says stop. A less skilled producer can actually be an obstacle. But a person like Blanton, specifically Blanton, will be a tremendous benefit to us because he will be able to pace the recordings and know specifically what to go back to. [i.e.] “In measure 25, the sopranos didn’t sing together.” So he’ll know that we only need to go back to measure 23. A less skilled producer might say, ‘go back to measure 19,’ and then you both waste time and waste energy. So he’s very efficient, he’s got great ears. He himself has a Master’s in Orchestral Conducting from the Shepherd School so it’s fun for him to come back to the Shepherd School. …He has buddies who are still on the staff and the faculty there and he’s a trained conductor himself. So he listens with the ears of a conductor and the knowledge, the technical expertise, of a Grammy-winning producer.

Wow, between Blanton Alspaugh, Ken Cowan, and the Chamber Choir, sounds like this recording is a true Houston project! Any other thoughts?

This is part of what a professional ensemble is all about. And it’s a real honor that we’re having the opportunity to sing this music, to make this recording, as an ongoing part of our mission to record important works, so I thank all those who are responsible: the Board and our wonderful staff, you and Aileen and Vahe, for the support we’re going to need to make this a success.

[Interview conducted by Grace Svatek on May 19, 2017]