Russian Composers

HSC has met the Russian language and has conquered! But not without a struggle. Pronunciation of Russian is not obvious to an American: A good 'phonetic' version helps, but even that is not enough. Knowing this, each of the Chorus conductors has employed a 'language coach.' The best coaches have been ones who arrived with experience in teaching Russian rather than just pronouncing it.

Prokofieff's 'Alexander Nevsky' has undoubtedly been the most enjoyed work by an Russian in our repertoire -- particularly by the men, who can bask in four part glory. First Tenors and Sopranos have to be coached in energy conservation and tone control to master the high tessitura. The work is a suite arranged from a movie score of epic proportions. Strong and Hausmann have each helped us grasp the drama by having us view the movie in rehearsals. Symphony conductor Lawrence Foster realized that as well, and 1972 symphony audiences were treated to an excerpt from the movie as a prelude to the performances! Of the movie's scenes, the arch-terror of the 'evil' Crusaders in Pskov is a highlight to me. Others enjoy the Battle on the Ice, or the triumph and joy of the final chorus. Is this work propaganda? If we were Russians we would say it is 'patriotism' -- and, in deference, I use that term.

Borodin's 'Polovtsian Dances', from his opera "Prince Igor,' are a Nevsky 'twin' -- Russian score just as illegible, rhythmic climaxes just as joyful and tessitura just as taxing. Lee Stevens notes that our 1965 performance was a Houston Chronicle 'One Dollar' concert in the Sam Houston Coliseum.

Moussorgsky's 'Boris Godunoff' was produced in a concert version in 1976 under Foster's direction. It was a showpiece for bass Jerome Hines, and we liked him as much as did audiences and reviewers. Just as thrilling for some were the many substantial solos given to HSC members, including current members Mary Nepveux and Jim Wilhite. The production of concert version of operatic works like 'Boris' was a favorite concert presentation of Lawrence Foster. His 'romance' with Houston and the Symphony and the Chorus is a story in itself. Foster enters the Houston scene on March 16 and 17, 1970, as a touted cello soloist! The next season, symphony goers realize there is more to this brash young virtuoso -- He is back as a principal visiting conductor (three stints, each involving two successive weekends of concerts). On Feb. 28, and March 1 and 2, 1971, HSC meets him for the first time as he conducts us in the Verdi Sacred Pieces, part of the visible 'Stokowski Memorial Concert' honoring the death of that Houston, HOS, and HSC favorite. And during that year relationship gel -- The following year (1971-72) he climbs to the Symphony masthead and leadership.

But the real story of Foster and the Symphony Chorus in the drama and terror of their second encounter. Bob Wilbur, former Tenor and Bass section leader, relates the story of the April 1973 performance of Stravinsky's Persephone -- A-tonal -- devilishly difficult -- this work was made next to impossible by the fact that each voice section was given a score that had that part's line only! -- not a sign of entrances of any other voice part, let alone clues about the orchestra! Rehearsals were a struggle -- made somewhat possible by heroic piano cues from the rehearsal pianist and conducting by chorus director Don Strong. Even the piano rehearsal with Foster seemed to be OK. But then came the orchestra rehearsal -- and all hell broke loose. The cues from the piano seemed to banish in the orchestra melee -- and the visual cues from Foster seemed to vanish as he busied himself with orchestra (Was that cue for bass or soprano or French horn?) Order and confidence collapsed, and with it Foster's temper rose. Toward the end, after on botched entrance, Foster muttered aloud to the chorus -- 'that's wrong -- but you'll never get it right anyway!' Think of a dejected HSC filing out of that disaster. And think of what chorus conductor Don Strong must have felt. It was normally Don who was the one to blow his temper! But this time he remained amazingly calm -- and gathered the chorus for a special rehearsal. Chorus entrances were rehearsed again and again and again. Tenor soloist George Shirley attended -- and showed that he too was having a difficult time with the score. But out of the chaos something finally clicked -- the HSC cam through -- and the performances came off without a hitch!!! Foster was non-plussed! Foster was amazed! Foster was overjoyed! And thereafter, Foster was a champion of the HSC -- using HSC in more events than any prior conductor!

And HSC members loved Foster as well! They remember him first of all as a 'youngster' in appearance. His small frame was always overflowing in energy. Tempos and spirit of music ofter reflected that youthful exuberance -- fast, fast, fast! During that period the HSC cam into its own -- solidifying membership -- sharpening chorus quality -- no longer needing to be reinforced by the local College choruses on big choral works. HSC's romance with Foster ended with a inspiring Verdi Requiem in June 1978, after which Foster became conductor of the Monte Carlo Symphony, where he remains today. Were those electric tempos and energy a phenomenon of youth? What would the interpretations of a mature Lawrence Foster be like? We looked forward to judging that first hand in April 1989, when he was slated to return for a performance of the Beethoven Missa Solemnis. But a neck injury forced a cancellation. So we still wait and hope for a renewal of our friendship.

Tchaikowsky is the composer of the remaining works by Russian composers. There is a miscellany including the 'ooh and ah' of the Waltz of the Snow-flakes, from the Nutcracker Suite. There is singing Tchaikowsky's 'Eight Song' to piano accompaniment in the Jones Hall lobby during the first HSO Summer Festival in 1981, a Tchaikowsky-centered event.

'Miller' is the City-of-Houston's outdoor performance amphitheater in City Park. Summer performances by many Houston arts groups are financed by the city. The 'hill' is divided between the 'blanket' people and the 'chair' people, all of whom claim their free spaces by showing up hours ahead. The seats up front are also free, but reserved by scrambling for tickets the morning of the performance. HSO had been a regular and HSC an occasional Miller performer for years before the HSC was invited to participate in 'the Fourth' in 1985. We continued regularly through 1992 -- when the major HSO Summer outdoor focus was switching northward to Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, where stage space for chorus is inadequate. We are nostalgic over a Fourth of July in the park, singing Pops, and concluding with Tchaikowsky's 1812 Overture. By this time, all the performances have faded into one -- so let me describe that mised memory --

We arrived in mid afternoon, knowing that we will be spending the rest of the day in that vicinity (We have reserved parking with orchestra members, but in-and-out is not worth the hassle). The afternoon Orchestra rehearsal has its own picnicking audience. Then follows our own brand of picnicking. In a special roped-off area southeasts of the dome, Symphony stage manager Don Jackson and his crew exercises his sideline, skill, and serves us his hearty Texas barbecue! Memories include -- sweating -- time to lounge and chat -- watching the miniature train and it occupants -- sweating -- watching the mobs of people having their own picnics -- crowded, smelly rest-rooms -- more sweating.

We change to dark bottoms and white, tie-less tops in the backstage dressing rooms. For the first half of the concert we are spectators. Our vantage point is a small private fenced-off area to stage left -- just far back enough fro us to be able to see the stage, but also fine for observing the crowds. Protecting that fenced off area is a huge, ancient live oak. As concert time and darkness arrives, it is quite inviting. What is more natural that the Houston Symphony Choral (our name at that time) calling that area the 'Houston Symphony Corral~'.

Then it is backstage and on stage for the second half of the concert -- standing (no chairs) behind the Orchestra. Temperatures are 'tolerable,' because the cooler air is blowing up from below us. We sing a repertoire of 'Pops music, usually directed by Newt Wayland. Somehow, all that is only preparation, however -- we are really waiting for the 1812 Overture. When the 1812 arrives, we find that we have no really been on a 'stage'-- we are actually standing in the sounding box of the Houston Symphony brass! We are collectively two feet behind the loudest 'hoorns' that you will eve here -- and the French horns are pointed directly at us! No matter -- we are 'miked' -- and during our singing of the choral parts the brass is suitably restrained. And it is all enormous fun -- cannons and all! The 1812 climaxes and finishes -- to tumultuous applause -- and virtually without pause the Orchestra swings in to Sousa's 'Stars and Strips' -- we cheer the piccolo players as they play their fifes' -- and shortly after that the first big BOOM sounds -- the fireworks are beginning -- and suddenly that attentive crowd is abandoning us -- rushing to the rear to get beyond the tent-like amphitheater covering to see the fireworks. The unperturbed 'Band' plays on a while, but we file off. Some performers stay and enjoy firworks to the bitter end -0 but others succumb, trot to the parking lot, and drive out of City Part far ahead of the enthusiastic crowd! What a Day! What a Day!

There is on other type of HSC 'Fourth of July' experience that we must document -- and that is the joy of 'being a cannoneer.' For that concert the 'hill' is flanked on either side by a row of elevated platforms. Atop each row is an array of 'cannons.' which are 'fired' at appropriate times in the 1812 overture. Such 'cannons' require 'cannoneers' of course! In rehearsals -- would we be interested in being cannoneers? Of course! Clad in dark trousers, a white shirt, a sash, and a tri-cornered hat, we clamber up the rear of the platform and hold out our kerosene torches for lighting. On verbal cue we each lover our torch to our cannon -- and wait for the cannon to be electronically fired by the keystroke of the Symphony percussionist sitting in the sound booth with 1812 score in front of him! A sham? No matter -- the audience is blissfully unaware of this chicanery. And then we can relax and look out over this sea of thousands upon thousands of spectators -- and we can join them in looking up at the spectacular fireworks as well. This is truly the ideal place to view the entire spectacle!

There is a wonderful 'woman's rights' issue over here -- can we have woman cannoneers? The answer is 'yes -- a first rate idea. So over the years women, in black trousers, white shirt, sash, and with hair tucked up into three cornered hats, have fooled the audiences in work ways that one! And so have the young sons and daughters of HSC members (Ask the Carthels about this).

Season Concert Date Composer, Work Concert Conductor Concert Conductor Soloists
Comments (on the line below when given)
87-88 Nov 14,15,16 1987 Polovtsian Dances (Prince Igor) Weller, Walter Hausmann, Charles  
A Houston Chronicle 'One Dollar' Symphony concert in the Sam Houston Coliseum
62-63 Jan 25 1963 Polovtsian Dances (Prince Igor) Kurtz, Efrem Urbach,k Alfred F.  
Moussorgsky, Modest
77-78 March 6,7 1978 Boris Godunoff (concert version) Foster, Lawrence Babikian, Virginia Jerome Hines, B. Sandra Coffman, S(HSC): Nancy McClain, A (HSC): Mary Nepveux, A(HSC); Cary C. Cobb, T(HSC); Paul Downs, T (HSC); Richard C. Dehmel, B(HSC): Nathaniel Lee, B(HSC); James R. Wilhite, B(HSC).
Prokofiew, Sergei
95-96 Feb 17,18,19 1996 Alexander Mevsky, Op 78 Paul, James Hausmann, Charles Florence Quivar, MS.
Paul replaced Alexander Fedosseyev, who cancelled
86-87 May 16,17,18 1987 Alexander Mevsky, Op 78 Comissiona, Sergiu Hausmann, Charles Janice Taylor, M-S.
71-72 Mar 27,28 1992 Alexander Nevsky, Op 78 Foster, Lawrence Strong, Donald Earkube Bakkardm (Earline Ballard), S.
HSC Joined by Houston Baptist College Chorus and Rice University Choral, HSC was costumed.
Tchaikowsky, Pyotr Ilyich
91-92 Jul 4 1992 1812 Overture, Op 49. Wayland, Newton Hausmann, Charles  
89-90 Jul 4 1990 1812 Overture, Op 49. Wayland, Newton Hausmann, Charles  
88-89 Jul 4 1989 1812 Overture, Op 49. Wayland, Newton Hausmann, Charles  
87-88 Jul 4 1988 1812 Overture, Op 49. Wayland, Newton Hausmann, Charles  
84-85 Jul 9 1985 1812 Overture, Op 49. Wayland, Newton Babikian, Virgina  
All abover 1812 performances were in Miller Theater
80-81 Jun 1 1981 Eight Songs Babikian, Virginia Babikian, Virginia  
Tchaikowsky Festival - The chorus sang outside the main door of Jones Hall
84-85 Jul 9 1985 Waltz of the Snow-flakes, from Nutcracker Comissiona, Sergiu Babikian, Virginia  
87-88 Dec --, 1949? Waltz of the Snow-flakes, from Nutcracker Urbach, Alfred F. Urbach, Alfred F.  
Women of the Chorus

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