Welcome to the Sixtieth Anniversary History of the Houston Symphony Chorus.


This document is on the web for your

enjoyment and comment.

In Fall 2007 I will be editing and amplifying the history based on your suggestions,

and adding illustrations.





David G. Nussmann


Table of Contents

Table of Contents. 2

Introduction and Acknowledgments. 3

The First Concert of the Houston Chorale. 4

The Independent Concerts, 1947-1954. 5

The First Concert with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. 5

Showing the Pathway – Choral Concerts with Orchestra Before the Chorale. 5

Concerts for the Houston Symphony – with Efrem Kurtz, 1949-1953. 6

The Chorale Singers of the Urbach Years, 1946-1966. 7

Recovery under Sir Thomas Beecham, Spring 1955. 9

Being Contemporary with Leopold Stokowski, 1955-1960. 9

Singing with Sir John Barbirolli, 1961-68. 10

The Struggle toward a New Performance Home. 11

Dancing with Andre Previn – Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.. 14

Keeping up with Lawrence Foster, 1971-78. 15

The Annual Christmas Pops Tradition is Born and Blossoms. 16

A Busy HSC Found Time to do Still More: 17

Hallelujah! Singing Messiah. 17

Virginia Babikian becomes HSC Director, 1977-1986. 18

Singing in an Interregnum.. 19

Romanticizing with Sergiu Comissiona, 1980-1988. 20

Guest Conductors During the Comissiona Tenure. 21

Pops Series Participation. 22

Singing in Summer Festivals. 22

The Big Blowup. 23

Touring in Texas. 25

A Change in Leadership: Ed Polochick for a Moment 26

A Change in Leadership: And then Charles Hausmann, 1986-2007. 27

Singing Between ‘Maestroships,’ from June 1988. 29

Exulting with Christoph Eschenbach, 1989-99. 29

Highlights of Guest Conductors in the Eschenbach Years. 31

Introductory Workshops. 32

Singing Pops with Newton Wayland. 33

Singing at Miller Outdoor Theater 33

Another ‘Maestro’ Transition, Fall 1999 – Spring 2001. 34

Throwing Out but Surviving after Tropical Storm Allison of June 8 2001. 34

Singing with Hans Graf, 2000 to the Present 35

Guest Conductors during the Era of Hans Graf 36

Singing Pops with Michael Krajewski 36

The Women ‘Ooh’ and ‘Aah’ (and Sometimes the Men Too) 37

Joining University of Houston Musicians in Symphonic Choral Works. 37

To Mexico City with Charles Hausmann. 38

To England and Europe with Charles Hausmann: 39

HSC’s Piano Accompanists. 39

An Endowment for HSC.. 40

In Memoriam.. 40

In Conclusion: Looking Back and Looking Toward the Future. 40

The Mountain Peaks of the Houston Symphony Chorus Journey. 42

The Houston Symphony Chorus in Costume…………..………………………………. 43

The Houston Symphony Chorus Recorded……………………………………………... 44

Works Cited…………………………………………………………………………….. 45


Introduction and Acknowledgments

This history of the Houston Symphony Chorus is compiled in 2007, on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of its founding on October 29, 1946, as the Houston Chorale.[1] It celebrates 864 concerts, 800 of them with the Houston Symphony. The “world” of the Houston Symphony Chorus starts with its interactions with its own directors – but achieves its peaks with its interaction with the Houston Symphony and the succession of brilliant Maestros. The Chorus’ repertoire, the Chorus’ very existence, is one with the Symphony.

In this history the Chorus is referred to as the Houston Chorale or Chorale in 1946-1967, as the Houston Symphony Chorale or HSC in 1968-1986, and as the Houston Symphony Chorus or HSC or the Chorus in 1986 to the present.[2] The Houston Symphony is usually HSO. HGO refers to the Houston Grand Opera. U of H refers to the University of Houston.

A concert-by-concert delineation of every performance by HSC, in chronological order, is on the Chorus web site.

This history is based on the research that the present author undertook ten years ago, when, for the Fiftieth Anniversary, he wrote A Golden Anniversary: Fifty Years of the Houston Symphony Chorus, 1997. In aggregate 82 pages, that is a history organized according to the repertoire. Many individuals helped in assembling that history. The present author is also in debt to Sandy Graf and Lee Stevens, authors of: Houston Symphony Chorus History, 1986. Catherine Howard, Roger Cutler, Tony Sessions, David Knoll, Brenda Knoll, Steve James, Beth Weidler and Sally Hoffecker, all with both editorial skills and discerning perceptions of HSC performance, have been contributors and reviewers of this document. The “pre-flood” HSO Music Library was invaluable, as well as the “post-flood” HSO Archive and its volunteer personnel.

Alfred Urbach and the Start[3]

“He came to Houston with plans for a civic chorus … and called at this office a few days after he landed. I gave him some history that was probably not very encouraging. The best I could say was that although we had plenty of good talent in the various choirs of the city, there had been no brilliant results from the several efforts to weld it together. The idea of a true community chorus, often projected by local and visiting musicians, had never seemed to be eagerly seized. ‘Well,’ said Urbach ‘maybe this is the time – ’ ”

Thus Hubert Roussel, longtime music critic, describes the young man who faced him across a Houston Post desk one late summer day in 1946. Alfred Urbach, a young bachelor released from World War II service, had just arrived in town to assume his duties as first cellist of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. His hobby was choral conducting. Urbach had organized many military choruses while serving with the Air Transport Command in Alaska. He was astonished and impressed by the G. I.s’ enthusiastic response to choral music during those difficult years. This wartime experience led Urbach to believe strongly in the value of music as a unifier and peace-making force in human relations.

In Urbach’s own words, “Common ground for the rich and poor, the strong and the weak, the young and the old, the meek and the forceful, is not easily found – but it can be found in singing.” He felt that music brought these humanitarian benefits not just to the singer, but to the listener as well. “The sort of chorale I have in mind would express the musical spirit of all Houston.”

There were many besides Roussel who agreed with Urbach’s ideas, and so the Houston Chorale, conceived in Alaska, became a reality. The Houston Chronicle donated the use of its KTRH studios, then at the Rice Hotel, for the first auditions. It took two months to get thirty singers together for the first rehearsal on October 29, 1946, at the old Houston Conservatory of Music. By the end of January 1947, the group numbered seventy-five, and membership was closed to prepare for the “first annual concert.”

The First Concert of the Houston Chorale

The first concert of the Houston Chorale was held on April 23, 1947. Its program revealed the promise of the new organization:

·        The organization had chosen a name – the Houston Chorale.

·        The chorus was an independent organization. Though Al Urbach was the first chair cellist of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, there was no formal connection of the Chorale and the HSO at the Chorale’s start.

·        The Chorale had organized.  The program revealed an Executive Group, 74 Charter Members,[4] and Concert Financial Benefactors and appeals for both volunteer singers and more benefactors. It confidently announced that this was the First Annual Concert – they would not wait until the second concert to show their intent to be the continuing premier choral organization in Houston.

·        In the program the Chorale stated five objectives. The objective of singing with the Houston Symphony Orchestra was contained in the more general fourth objective – “To assist in the performance of music when a chorus is an integral part.”

·        The concert was held in the Music Hall, a premier Houston location for a musical event.[5]

·        The concert opened with Lundquist’s Now That the Sun is Beaming Bright.  “This decidedly upbeat composition characterized the spirit of the Chorale (our “Houston Symphony Chorus”) for many years.”[6]

·        The concert repertoire was diverse – certainly representing what a better chorus of that day would have presented, either a cappella or accompanied by Edithanne Davis at the piano.

The Independent Concerts, 1947-1954

The first concert proved to be the model for a series of independent concerts during the seven seasons 1947-48 through 1953-54. The peak season was 1947-48, when there were five independent concerts. As soon as engagements with the Houston Symphony began (spring 1949) there were never more than two independent concerts in a season, most timed to keep the Chorale together the entire season.

Al Urbach directed the great majority of the independent concerts – although in 1954 he gave the chorus the thrill of being directed for an entire evening by choral master Noble Cain. Repertoire of the independent concerts continued to be varied. Some new works were performed, notably several by Arthur Hall, professor and composer at Rice’s Shepherd School. From Urbach’s musician friends an accompanying chamber orchestra developed.

The custom of an annual Chorale Christmas Concert soon became the cornerstone of these independent concerts. When, on occasion, the Symphony wanted yuletide chorus contributions, Urbach found ways to “piggyback.” The Chorale’s Christmas repertoire included more serious music than the current Christmas Pops concerts.

The First Concert with the Houston Symphony Orchestra

April 10, 1949, marks the first of a pair of performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – the first appearance of the Houston Chorale with the Houston Symphony. The Chorale membership had climbed to about 150.[7] The reader should think back to his or her first HSC concert with the Houston Symphony and magnify both the intensity and the exhilaration by tenfold. After a year and a half as an organization, here is the great chance. Here is the opportunity devoutly to be hoped for—other than the annual Christmas concert, the entire 1948-49 season had been devoted to preparation. But think also of the Symphony. This was a risk well worth taking – their first chair cellist was in charge of chorus preparation. Though most Symphony performances were single concerts (no repeats), the Symphony scheduled two for the Ninth Symphony. What a vote of confidence!

Showing the Pathway – Choral Concerts with Orchestra Before the Chorale

Al Urbach and Herbert Roussel were realistic. The Houston Chorale was attempting to fill a huge void. The major question was whether the Houston audiences, particularly Symphony audiences, would be receptive to music they had rarely heard live. Prior to 1946 the Houston Symphony Orchestra had performed only nine concerts with choral works – and all but three were operas.  In 1940 and again in 1941, HSO conductor Ernst Hoffmann led members of the Orchestra in two concert series of Händel’s Messiah – with singers drawn “from local church choirs.”[8] The December 3 and 15 1941 Messiahs bracketed Pearl Harbor day – World War II put an end to all such experimentation. On December 14, 1942, the Singing Cadets from Aggie Land (Richard Jenkins, director) gave the second half of an HSO subscription concert, under the baton of HSO maestro Ernst Hoffman. Don’t laugh – most of the works sung by the war-destined cadets were opera choruses.

A glimpse of the possibilities came in 1942, then particularly in 1946-48.  In those days the center of music education in Texas was in Denton, at North Texas State College, where Wilfred C. Bain led the choral program, including the Denton Choir. At the Houston Symphony’s invitation the Denton Choir visited Houston, and provided the following “heady” offerings:

·        March 25, 1942 – Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (an HSO subscription concert)

·        January 21, 1946 – Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (another HSO subscription concert)

·        March 8, 1947 – Bach’s B Minor Mass, at City Auditorium

·        March 9, 1947 – Gluck’s Orpheus highlights, in the garden of Bayou Bend

·        March 1948 – Verdi’s Requiem, probably at City Auditorium

The orchestra was the Houston Symphony. HSO maestro Hoffman conducted the first four, and guest conductor Frederick Fennell the last. The last three March events were parts of ‘Azalea Music Festivals.’ The Orpheus highlights concert was held on the lawn of Bayou Bend – Miss Ima Hogg, then Symphony Society President, hosting in the garden of her residence.[9] We know these concerts not only from Roussel[10] but also from Gene and Arline Lasater, Denton Choir members who would later join the Houston Chorale. The Azalea Festival concerts in 1947 and 1948 came as the Houston Chorale was organizing and preparing its earliest concerts. The Lasaters tell us that at the 1948 Verdi Requiem, Houston Chorale members actually joined the Denton Choir in the singing. Urbach and the Chorale probably viewed the Denton Choir not as a rival, but rather as a means of showing the potential for choral music in Houston. We owe the Denton Choir and its Director Wilfred C. Bain much for these path-showing steps that came at just the right time for the Houston Chorale to step in a year later to provide the local continuing resource.

Concerts for the Houston Symphony – with Efrem Kurtz, 1949-1953

The Houston Chorale’s 1949 debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Symphony maestro Efrem Kurtz as the final work of his first season,[11] was a resounding success. In particular, it appears that Kurtz was quite satisfied – for in the next seasons there followed a series of concerts in which the Chorale sang with the Orchestra under Kurtz’s direction. The pace was not electric – generally one work per season,[12] and only one concert per work, because that was the Symphony’s standard. The Chorale was a part of changing orchestral repertoire and audience tastes in Houston.[13] The following were sung under Kurtz’s direction:

·        Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as described above.

·        Parts from Tchaikowsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Gretel in a Symphony Christmas Concert, December 1949.

·        Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody (Chorale men with Alto “Met” soloist Blanche Thebom) in January 1950.

·        Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances in April 1950.

·        Verdi’s Requiem in April 1951. (This was a stupendous effort for the Chorale. As with the earlier Beethoven’s Ninth, this was the highlighted season-ender.)

·        Brahms’ Nänie and Schicksalslied in March 1952.

·        Monteverdi’s Magnificat in April 1953.

Kurtz’s audiences and support slipped in time. And so did Kurtz’s support for the Chorale. In his fifth and last season, 1953-54,[14] there were no Chorale engagements with HSO. Al Urbach filled in by organizing and conducting two independent concerts.

The Chorale Singers of the Urbach Years, 1946-1966

Tuesday has been the rehearsal night for this organization for its entire sixty years! Rehearsals for the first sixteen years were held in the old yellow brick City Auditorium, which stood where Jones Hall is today. Many came to rehearsal by bus. Through the lobby and up a winding stair was the rehearsal room, three stories tall, still with its gilded cherubim and original gas lighting fixtures. It was not air conditioned until window units were installed midway through Chorale use. The rehearsal room was not adequately soundproofed: Chorale sounds were punctuated by shouts from wrestling match spectators downstairs.[15]

HSC membership has always included a wide range of aptitudes, training, and experience. On the one hand, there are many professional musicians. On the other hand, there are singers whose only musical experience is singing in a college chorus or a church choir. The membership in the Urbach era was just as diverse – and even more so. On the upper end of experience, with no competing choruses the Chorale’s best were of solo quality with professional singing capabilities. When the Houston Grand Opera opened for the very first time on January 19, 1956, with a performance of Salome, there were Chorale members on stage in some of the supporting solo and chorus roles. That practice continued for many years.[16] Some Chorale members served as soloists in Houston Symphony performances.[17] On the lower end of experience, The Chorale’s problem was that the Houston population in 1946 was only 350,000 – less than one fifteenth of today’s numbers.[18] The city had no collegiate music school to nurture the town’s music.[19]  The Chorale was hard pressed to get the numbers of good singers required for the performance of large works. So the minimum of the experience and talent spectrum was undoubtedly lower than today’s.

By fall 1952 Urbach and the Chorale split into two rehearsing groups – a Tuesday Chorale and a Friday Chorale. The total membership was 127, with only seven members singing in both. That year the two groups each gave a separate independent concert (December, February). The programs explained – the predominantly a cappella repertoire of the independent concerts was better performed in small groups. The two choruses presumably joined for works with HSO. This two-chorus arrangement persisted through fall 1956. But soon after, the increased predominance of concerts with HSO made a structure based on the independent concerts a detriment, so the two rehearsal groups merged.

How many members were in the Chorale of this era? Not more than 150 members.[20] That number was not exceeded until the 1968 expansion generated by the Jones Hall opportunities.[21] Hubert Roussel’s reviews of the Beethoven’s Ninth concerts of 1949 and 1957 in the Houston Post each mention ‘150 singers,’ probably noted because it was more than the Chorale normally fielded for a concert. Rosters of independent concerts, plus incomplete internal membership control lists show that fielding 150 singers on a routine basis would have been difficult. We also have firm evidence that attrition was a major problem to the early Chorale. By October 1955[22] only seven of the original seventy-four charter members remained. The median service was just under four years – a musical work done five years before would be known by less than half of the Chorale. The tattered archival copies of membership of the 1950’s are laced with both erasures and additions. These same rosters show that the numerically strong soprano and alto sections had an inadequate backup of tenors and basses – a universal problem of amateur choruses.

To the Chorale members’ immense credit they performed all the necessary duties of an independent organization. A full elected slate of officers coordinated all the necessary tasks of fund raising – all the necessary tasks of organizing and holding the independent concerts. The size of the accomplishment is exemplified by the 1953 Christmas concert, for which 120 Chorale members sold 2,800 tickets![23] We of the HSC of 2007, who are relieved of the mountain of these tasks by the Houston Symphony Organization, can concentrate on our musical participation. To the members of the Chorale during the Urbach years, 1946-1966, we say “thank you.”

We also need to thank the Houston Symphony Organization. From the time of the first independent concert the Houston Symphony Society was one of the Chorale’s sponsors. Urbach’s duties as Chorale Director was a recognized part of his HSO activity – the Chorale never had to bear any cost for its Director. HSO also provided the choral scores for concerts with HSO.

Recovery under Sir Thomas Beecham, Spring 1955

With the departure of Efrem Kurtz, HSO appointed the dashing Ferenc Fricsay as new HSO maestro. The Chorale began rehearsing for him the very difficult Easter Cantata by contemporary American composer Alan Hovhaness. About December 1954, relations between Fricsay and Symphony management ground to a halt, and Fricsay was told not to return from a European trip.[24] What to do? Glory-be, the interim emergency maestro, arriving March 14, was Sir Thomas Beecham. In Herbert Roussel’s words, “This became… a sort of swift, poignant romance between an aging conductor, who mocked at himself, and a young organization that roused, beguiled, and refreshed him…. The audience hugely enjoyed what he presented.”

 [25] And the Chorale was at the heart of this. Hovhaness’ Easter was replaced with performances on April 3, 4, and 5, 1955, of a stirring presentation of Verdi’s Requiem under Beecham![26] Beecham had very high praise for the Chorale.

Being Contemporary with Leopold Stokowski, 1955-1960

The Chorale and Orchestra’s “Stokowski” era began Dec. 12, 1955, when the new ‘podium sorcerer’ Leopold Stokowski conducted them in Jean Sibelius’ Hymn to the Earth. It was a U.S. premiere. The chorus must have impressed Stokowski – for he promptly immersed the Chorale in music with the orchestra – so much so that during his entire tenure as HSO maestro there was room for only two independent concerts. It is not merely how much was sung but also what was sung – Stokowski was a “zealot” for new music. World premiers included Orff’s Il Trionfo di Afrodite[27] and Hovhaness’ Ad Lyrem.  A U.S. premier was Sibelius’ Hymn to the Earth. Houston premiers were Orff’s Carmina Burana (1956, 1958), Berlioz’ L’Enfence du Christ (“The chorale at its best”), Orff’s Naenie und Dithrambe (Poems of Schiller), Wagner’s Venusberg music from Tannhäuser, and Debussy’s Trois Chansons for a capella chorus. His only concerts not new to Houston were performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Bach’s B Minor Mass. This was an extremely aggressive diet for both the Chorale and Houston audiences.[28] It certainly thrilled the chorus to be at the heart of new music for Houston.[29]

The performances of Carmina Burana were particularly significant. It was first presented in a single performance on January 31, 1956, – a “fireball,” a ‘memorable evening” to a wildly appreciative audience that had not heard it before. With enthusiasm for Carmina running high, it was rescheduled for April 7 and 8, 1958,[30] – but this time tied to recording sessions soon after. The resultant LP record made the Chorale world-famous. Soprano Virginia Babikian has electric solo moments. She has said that composer Carl Orff told her that this LP was his favorite Carmina recording![31] It has been re-issued as a CD. Although this author’s ear says that HSC sings a better Carmina today, nothing can detract from the Chorale pride and uplifted reputation that came from that LP recording.

Singing with Sir John Barbirolli, 1961-68

The Chorale’s first encounter with Sir John was in February 1962, when the women provided their “instrumental” accompaniment to Les Sirènes from Debussy’s Nocturnes and Pelléas et Mélisande. The full chorus met him a month later, when they performed Mahler’s Second (“Resurrection”) Symphony. The joy of that concert was performing that uplifting work. The pain was the realization that to attain the sound required by its climax, the Chorale had to share the risers with the University of Houston Concert Choir. For the next ten years, the Chorale would not perform a major, large choral work without University of Houston student participation. The U of H had no School of Music at this time – their Chorus was largely undergraduate, with a significant cadre of enthusiastic but immature voices. Hearing those voices singing next to them pained some Chorale members.[32] But as Chorale recruiting continued to come up short,[33] there was nothing that could be done. Barbirolli, an Englishman, came from a tradition in which the large massed choir was the acme of choral glory. Typical of that viewpoint was Sir John’s massing of 260 choristers to sing Messiah on April 4 and 5, 1966. With 260 Singers, including the Chorale, it was hardly “baroque” – but it was thoroughly “British.”[34]

And, under Sir John’s baton the large works came – the Verdi Requiem (Spring 1963), Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, a Barbirolli favorite[35] (Spring 1964), Beethoven’s Ninth (Spring 1965), Mahler’s Second and Third (Spring 1966, 1967), and Verdi’s Requiem and Mahler’s Second repeats as guest conductor in 1968 and 1969. All but the Mahler Third included the U of H Concert Chorale. Interspersed were smaller choral-orchestral works, for which the Chorale was the sole vocal provider.

This writer has heard nothing but adulatory praise for Sir John from Chorale members. Very approachable (in contrast with the aloof Stokowski), he was “beloved” by HSC, more than any other Symphony maestro to that date. He was also a favorite of audiences, who appreciated his middle-of-the road tastes that included far less of the inscrutable of Stokowski’s avant-garde offerings. When Sir John died on July 29, 1970, his planned guest appearance was turned into a massively attended memorial concert, with significant HSC participation.[36]

The Struggle toward a New Performance Home

Clouding both Symphony and Chorale during this period was the inadequacy of the Symphony’s performance hall. Houston’s Symphony Orchestra could never truly succeed until a better home was found. Hope was in sight. The old City Auditorium, the Chorale’s rehearsal location was soon demolished. (The Chorale found temporary space for rehearsing in the Chamber of Commerce Building.) On January 9, 1964, ground was broken for the Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, on the old location. For three seasons (1963-64, 1964-65, 1965-66) the Chorale was reduced to singing a single series a season with HSO. Urbach filled in with at least one independent opportunity each year, but membership was down to an even hundred.[37] This was undoubtedly a difficult time for the Chorale and Urbach. We are thankful that a loyal core kept the organization going.

The new Jones Hall for the Performing Arts opened to tumultuous interest in fall 1966. HSC participated in both opening concerts:

·        On October 2, the opening dedication, the orchestra was the Houston All-City Symphony Orchestra, an inter-school body conducted by Harry Lantz. The Chorale sang the National Anthem, then a Hymn of Thanks, written and composed for the event by Alan Lake Chidsey and G. Alex Kevan, both of Houston’s St John’s School.

·        On the next night, HSO’s debut in the new quarters, the Chorale was also present. The Chorale contribution was the choral parts of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. Barbirolli ingeniously placed the Chorale in the orchestra pit! Says Roussel, “[The hall’s acoustics] were most impressive in the Ravel music. With the chorus entirely hidden in the orchestra pit, its sounds rising from nowhere to be reflected by the vastly remote dome of the auditorium, the effect was uncanny, and this music, for once, acquired precisely the other-world mystery that its author intended.”[38]

Managing a Transition in Chorale Leadership, 1967-69: The Houston Chorale becomes the Houston Symphony Chorale.

An even greater problem loomed – the health of Chorus Director Al Urbach. The diagnosis was arthritis (known to only a few). In that day, little could be done. First it robbed him of his ability to play the cello professionally; he became HSO’s personnel manager in 1955. As the problem progressed, even conducting became a problem – and continued activity a potential aggravation. He and his wife Jean made the decision that Al would retire at the end of the 1966-67 season and move to western Colorado. After twenty-one years of Urbach leadership, a new director had to be found.

The Houston Symphony took this very seriously. They valued the Chorale – particularly as they looked to programming in their new Jones Hall home. So, on the heels of the announcement of the Urbach retirement came two actions:

·        Starting with the 1967-1968 season the Director of the Houston Symphony Chorale would be none other than A. Clyde Roller, assistant conductor of HSO itself!

·        With Roller’s guidance and support, for the first time the Symphony officially assumed the obligation of the Chorale, placing it on the HSO budget. In recognition of that official assumption, its name was changed from The Houston Chorale to the Houston Symphony Chorale.

These steps were indeed strong assertions of support – vitally needed at the point of Urbach’s departure. HSC can thank HSO for these actions.

On the matter of Chorale organization nothing formal was done. Roller inherited the strong, independent internal governance of the Chorale. Was all of that structure and assertion of independence appropriate once the Chorale became the HSC, under the Symphony’s wing? That would depend on how each party involved – Members, Chorus Director, Symphony Management – fulfilled their covenant. In fact, it worked very well for many years – falling apart only in 1984, when communication proved to be a problem. The story of that 1984 episode will be told later.

Clyde Roller was a “known factor” to the chorus, having conducted their last concert in the previous season. He worked well with HSC.  The 1967-68 season was an excellent one. After an off-the-record Brahms Requiem with the University of Houston singers and Orchestra, conducted by Clyde himself, Roller guided HSC to their first encounter with new Orchestra Maestro Andre Previn, then guided HSC to a successful final concert of the Verdi Requiem, conducted by now “guest” conductor Sir John Barbirolli. But at the end of the season the Orchestra realized that Roller’s workload was too large and that he needed to relinquish the HSC directorship.[39]

The Chorale’s Associate Director, Wayne Bedford, was promoted to Director as Roller returned to full-time orchestral duties. Wayne too was a “known” quantity. Coming to Houston from Austin College in 1958, he had quickly become Associate Conductor of the Chorale under Al Urbach. Musical Director at Second Presbyterian Church, a full-time job, from 1960, Wayne also directed the Bedford Singers, a small independent ensemble, and from 1967 the Rice Concert Chorale.[40]

HSC faced a significant challenge in this era. The opening of Jones Hall placed the Symphony and HSC in a hugely attractive position. A groundswell of singers emerged desiring to sing in HSC. Here was the opportunity to increase the size of the chorus until it could handle major works on its own. But this groundswell was only marginally better trained than previous applicants. More singers could be admitted – but how could they be molded into the coherent singing group that was needed? The 1968-69 season was a watershed for choral training – Bedford established a system of coaching that this History will call the strong section coach organization. Four professional Section Coaches[41] were appointed:

Sectional rehearsals, led by these four, were frequent. Training in vocal technique as well as “note-pounding” took place. This structuring of HSC was vital for the period of HSC expansion and maturation ahead.

Bedford’s 1968-69 season was quite successful: he and his cadre of strong Section Coaches prepared HSC for four concert series – two directed by Maestro Andre Previn, a Christmas Concert directed jointly by Bedford and Clyde Roller,[42] and a Mahler Second directed by guest conductor Sir John Barbirolli. With a completed “Bedford” season, HSC broke for the summer – only to receive another blow. In late May 1969, while sailing (his favorite avocation), Wayne Bedford died of a heart attack.[43] What a tragic end to such a promising beginning.

On re-assembly in the fall, HSC members participated in a remarkable event: an audition for the position of Director of HSC. Each candidate rehearsed HSC for a portion of the session. Then the chorus members expressed their individual preference by secret ballot![44] The chosen HSC Director was Don Strong. He was Director of Music at St. John’s School (K-12) in River Oaks. He also succeeded Wayne Bedford as director of the Rice Concert Chorale. Strong quickly assumed the HSC Directorship. The system of strong section coaches was affirmed – with the word “strong” now assuming a double meaning. He appointed Eleanor Grant to the vacant Bass slot created by his own promotion. The rigorous organization with four designated section coaches lasted only a few years – replaced by two, then one assistant conductor in the masthead. But even into the late 1970’s HSC could martial four leaders for the frequent sectional rehearsals. Virginia Babikian, returned from her European singing engagements, appeared in that role in spring 1971. It was really up to Don Strong to use his own leadership and that of his cohorts to accomplish the objective of building HSC into the organization that it should be. And Strong succeeded! Although joint activities either with the U of H or Rice did occur, there were no more uses of the college choirs to bolster HSC in regular Symphony subscription concerts. The first truly positive demonstration of HSC’s bearing the entire burden in a subscription concert demanding large forces was March 1971’s performances of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast – bellowed by HSC alone!

Don Strong began fall 1969 as the fourth director in four years. There were 156 members, but only 65 of them were men, the traditional significant problem in balance that Don would gradually improve.[45] During at least the latter portion of Strong’s tenure, most rehearsals were held on Strong’s own turf – St. John’s School in River Oaks. HSC welcomed this escape from downtown parking fees. One of Don’s strengths was simultaneously a weakness. He was a perfectionist. There were endless repetitions of some phrases as he struggled to get HSC to sing better. Sometimes Don accompanied these endless repetitions with explosions of temper. I have talked with several professional directors about this – and they unanimously agree – while temper should always be controlled, they sympathize with Strong, in the midst of a struggle to badger HSC into bootstrapping itself into the organization it should be.[46] On joining HSC in spring 1977 for what turned out to be Don Strong’s last preparation, a Verdi Requiem, what this writer saw was a mature, smoothly running organization, bustling with pride in robust singing. A dynamic, smiling, and cajoling Don Strong showed no signs of “temper.” There were now 167 members. All the numeric growth had been used to increase the number of men, who now equaled the count of women![47] The Strong Section Coach system was still working in the sense that Strong could still martial professional leaders for four sectional rehearsals (counting himself). This writer will always remember the quality of our alto section’s fugue statement in Libera Me Domine de Morte aeter-na in Die Il-la Tremen-da – the epitome of good choral sound. Thank you Don Strong, for expanding us and molding us into a proper organization for the Symphony and its audiences – in essence, creating the modern HSC.

Dancing with Andre Previn – Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

We have actually completed the Andre Previn story – it was entirely contained within the one-year Clyde Roller and one-year Wayne Bedford years as HSC Directors. Previn arrived in fall 1967 as a conscious experiment in trying to bring youth into the HSO focus. As a conductor equally at home with writing movie music scores and conducting both pops music and the classical repertoire, Previn had fulfilled prior guest conductor roles in both genres. In his three engagements with HSC in two seasons the choristers liked him – and looked forward to more interaction. The engagements were promising – Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica (an “ooh and ah” number), Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and Liszt’s Faust Symphony.[48] But the Symphony’s experiment failed: Previn’s overall HSO repertoire did not bring in a significant youth contingent and at the same time resulted in lagging attendance by the traditional concertgoers. By May 1969 it was announced that Previn’s contract would not be renewed.[49] Overall, Previn’s time was too short to have any significant effect on HSC.

Not wanting to make a precipitous choice for the next maestro, Symphony management elected to make the 1969-70 year a year of “candidacy,” with seven guest ‘candidate’ conductors. For that year, candidate Clyde Roller conducted three of the five HSC engagements. Sixten Ehrling, another announced candidate, conducted the fourth. The fifth was a summer concert in Miller Theater, conducted by Don Strong. A photograph of HSC taken on that occasion includes a young Peter Peropoulos, who at the time of the current Sixtieth Anniversary is the Chorale member with the most service years (35).

Keeping up with Lawrence Foster, 1971-78

Lawrence Foster, who had been a prior guest conductor, was allotted four concert series in the candidacy year – and emerged victorious before the ‘candidating year’ was half over. At age twenty-nine, he was the youngest ever to fill the HSO slot. Here was a second experiment with youth, but one more firmly rooted – an experiment that succeeded. For HSC this was success beyond all their dreams. HSC’s first encounter with Foster was his debut as Symphony Maestro, conducting Beethoven’s C-Major Mass in October 1971. The last was Foster’s farewell concert – Beethoven’s Ninth in May 1978. In between was a whirlwind. That term is appropriate for three reasons:

·        Foster’s brisk tempos were often the fastest HSC ever would experience.

·        Foster programmed HSC more often than any previous conductor. HSO had to “run” to learn their music. Undoubtedly that quickened pace helped them to grow in competency. It also enabled them to hold better singers.

·        Foster clearly put his personal stamp on the repertoire that was sung during his term:

o       Foster was fond of concert versions of opera. The chorus participated in versions of Der Fliegende Holländer (1973), La Vida Breve (1974), Die Walküre (1975), and Boris Godunoff (1978). Selected HSC members got to sing bit parts – including female costumed “Walküre” in all their armored glory! Other operatic-style works programmed included Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1971), Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky (1972), Orff’s Carmina Burana (1973), Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust (1976), Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (1977), and Verdi’s Requiem (1977).

o       Other works new to HSO audiences included Haydn’s The Creation (1972), Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia (1973), Stravinsky’s Persephone (1973), and Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass in C Major (1974).

o       All the standards appeared in due rotation, including Beethoven’s Ninth (1974, 1978), Mahler’s Third (1971, 1975), Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe (1973), and Bach’s B Minor Mass (1974).

HSC’s accomplishments of this “Foster” era are clearly the joint work of the striving of Foster and Don Strong and the HSC members. This was never more clearly demonstrated than in the following two events:

·        Stravinsky’s Persephone (April 1973). This is a hellishly difficult piece. Terrified HSC and Don Strong did all rehearsing having score that showed only their individual part line. How they would get their pitch and enter would be a miracle. The orchestra rehearsal was a disaster. Toward the end, Foster slammed his score shut, saying, “I’d go over it again, but you still won’t get it!” As a dejected chorus filed off, Don Strong herded all to the rehearsal room in the bowels of Jones Hall. Diligent plodding for over an hour finally produced understanding – and to Foster’s amazement and HSC pride, the concert entrances were flawless! Bravo Don Strong!

·        Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (Feb. 1977). In piano rehearsal, the men of HSC thundered through the opening wail, a jarring, ominous, massively unison, triple forte “Kaedit Nos Pestis! Theba Peste Moritur!!”[50] A gleeful, grinning Foster stopped them and exclaimed “Is it all this good?” Bravo all men concerned!

The Annual Christmas Pops Tradition is Born and Blossoms

The Houston Chorale Christmas concert on December 10, 1948, was the first Chorale Christmas Concert – and, in spirit the ancestor of Christmas Pops. The Chorale had Christmas Concerts in the first decade, but not every year. HSO sponsored Christmas-related concerts with Chorale participation in 1950, 1956, 1959, and 1966.

But the beginning of an annual HSO Christmas Concert with HSC participation was the previously noted Christmas concert in 1968, with Clyde Roller conducting Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. It wasn’t until 1969 that one saw the phrase “Second Annual Christmas Concert,” featuring Honneger’s A Christmas Cantata. Attendees in 1970 heard Schutz’s Magnificat; 1971 included Mozart’s Solemn Vespers. After that time programs began to include phrases like “the sounds of Christmas” and “Christmas Sing-Along,” – and the popular repertoire known from later years took over. With the exception of 1972[51] there has been at least one HSO Christmas concert each year.

Guest Christmas Pops conductors have brought a variety of personal styles: HSC looks back with particular joy at leadership of Mitch Miller (1973, 1974, 1992, 1994) and Carmen Dragon (1976, 1977, 1979).

HSO Associate Conductors have also led. HSC rejoices particularly in Clyde Roller (1968, 1969, 1970, 1971), Bill Harwood (1978, 1980), and Toshiyuki Shimada (1985, 1986) – this writer still treasures his instrument from the  “Houston Symphony Kazoo Chorus” of 1986. Associate Gisèle Ben-Dor (1988, 1989, 1990) was at the center of a brief and adventuresome revolution in Christmas Pops format.[52]

The most recent development has been the bringing of the Principal Pops Conductor Michael Krajewski front and center for the Christmas concerts (2000 to present). Under his direction two Christmas CDs, with extensive HSC participation, have been produced. While HSC continues to dream of concerts with more serious Christmas music, who can doubt that Krajewski knows the pulse of the Pops adherents?

Conoco (now Conoco-Phillips) first contracted with HSO to provide music for their private Christmas party in 1973.[53] HSC’s first participation in a Conoco Christmas concert came in 1976, and has continued ever since. What a wonderful Christmas gift to its employees.

A Busy HSC Found Time to do Still More:

·        HSC members sang for the dedication of the Rothko Chapel, associated with Houston’s DeMenil museum, on April 9, 1972. Morton Feldman wrote an abstract composition Rothko Chapel, that aptly fit the abstract nature of artist Mark Rothko’s art for the ecumenical chapel. Virginia Babikian sang its solos.

·        HSC celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1972.

·        HSC sponsored a series of workshops, open to all musicians. These were early summer events, each climaxed with an informal, free “concert” highlighting the works studied:

o       June 1971 – Robert Shaw workshop on Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. At her retirement in 1986 Virginia Babikian called this workshop and performance one of the two most memorable occasions of her 19 years of HSC leadership.[54] The Houston Post’s review was headlined ‘Symphony Chorale Sublime,’[55]

o       June 1974 – Robert Shaw workshop on Bach’s B Minor Mass and St. John Passion.

o       June 1975 – Roger Wagner workshop on Faure’s Requiem.[56]

o       June 1976 – Elmer Iseler workshop featuring contemporary choral works.

o       June 1977 – Elmer Iseler workshop featuring Durufle’s Requiem.

·        HSC sponsored a series of classical “sing-alongs.” Open to all singers, these were popular single-evening events. Blockbuster excerpts from many works gave many the thrill of singing in the midst of HSC members. A mini-orchestra participated.[57] Dates were February 1974, February 1975 and February 1976.

Hallelujah! Singing Messiah

Earlier this history described the “predecessor” Messiah concerts in 1940-41, and Sir John Barbirolli’s massive “English-style” Messiah of Easter 1966. But the immediate predecessor to HSC’s annual Messiahs was a 1974 Messiah by HSO at the University of Houston, using University of Houston choruses. That must have been the catalyst – for in 1975 a Messiah performance using HSC was held. There has been at least one Messiah a year ever since. All were by HSC except 1978’s, which was by a U of H chorus.

Both HSO Associates and guest conductors have led Messiahs. Among Associates, HSC treasures experiences with Bill Harwood (1980, 1981, 1982, 1983).

Among guest conductors Roger Cutler and this writer join in compiling the following “short list” of all-time favorites:

·        Christopher Seaman (1990, 1991, 1993, 1997, 2005). Lively, humorous, approachable, totally Baroque, Seaman also conducted from the harpsichord. Most significantly, Seaman’s markings have become the basis of the HSC standard markings, with which the HSC Messiah group always begins rehearsing: each new conductor must face the “Seaman” markings, and modify them as he/she deems appropriate. In his latest (2005) return, an older Seaman had slowed many of his tempos, proving once again the variety of possible approaches to singing the work. (Not every HSC member approved.)

·        Nicholas McGegan (2002, 2004). Fun to work with, he created absolute highs.

For many years HSO Messiahs were locked out of December Jones Hall by the Houston Ballet’s Nutcracker performances. HSO Messiahs were held elsewhere, generally in Houston churches. Westbury Baptist was perhaps the most thrilling setting – Its white interior – its arc of choir seats, with orchestra in the middle of the arc[58] – truly an intimate environment, ideal for the Messiah. With the opening of the Wortham Theater and its magnificent Brown Auditorium and the moving of both Opera and Ballet to that new home, December Jones Hall time was reclaimed by HSO.  From 1987 Messiahs have been performed at Jones Hall.

First Methodist’s Messiah endowment began sponsoring concerts in 1982. With a few exceptions, that series has continued until today. The concept of a free Messiah in that environment does not appear to have hindered HSO’s Jones Hall Messiah ticket sales. By the same token, the multitude of “sing-along” Messiahs in Houston only increases the receptiveness of Houston to our Messiah performances.

Why will singers tolerate singing the Messiah year after year? Part of the joy is the ageless, biblically based libretto by Charles Jennens. Part of the joy comes from the degree to which each new conductor and soloist quartet brings a fresh interpretation of Handel’s wonderful score. Part consists of being connected with the chamber orchestra. In the small Messiah setting a heightened sense of collaborative music making brings renewed inspiration each year.

Virginia Babikian becomes HSC Director, 1977-1986

Don Strong resigned from the HSC directorship in the summer of 1977. HSO management immediately appointed Virginia Babikian to the post. You will recall Virginia as the soprano soloist in the Stokowski recording of Carmina Burana. She had continued her career as soprano soloist, both here and abroad. But when in Houston she had served as one of Don Strong’s vocal coaches, and then as assistant conductor – and that was her position when she was called to the Directorship. Virginia was a Professor of Voice and Artist in Residence at Houston Baptist University. In 1982, during her HSC Directorship, she left HBU to become Professor of Music and Chairman of the Voice Department in the Shepard School of Music at Rice.

Babikian focused. A single ‘Associate’ professional assisted her, sharing the directing of combined rehearsals as well as directing sectionals. Splitting into four sectionals was still feasible,[59] but was not as frequently done. The Associates were Ray Witt (1977-78), John Burnett (1978-79), and then David Wehr (1979-86), who through long tenure became as identified with HSC as Virginia. Babikian, like Don Strong, was a perfectionist, often hammering away at short phrases. She was an excellent teacher of vocal technique. This writer would often marvel at her demonstrations for the soprano section. (The women’s sections were studded with Virginia’s own vocal students, to HSC’s advantage.) We were drilled and re-drilled on the “schwa” sound, both for English and German, Virginia’s language specialties. We had a series of guest coaches for Russian and French.

Rehearsal spaces were a problem. Any group contracting Jones Hall had the right to commandeer its rehearsal room (“our” rehearsal space), and did so with an alarming frequency, sometimes with less than a week’s notice. It was imperative that HSC have an alternate space designated so that the trauma of change was minimized. In different years the designated alternate was:

·        River Oaks Baptist Church gymnasium (Babikian turf)

·        First Baptist Church Choir Room (at their new facility off Interstate 10)

·        First Methodist Church (but not their fine choir room, because it was too small for HSC)

·        Christ Church Cathedral, Episcopal assembly room

Singing in an Interregnum

Virginia’s HSC directorship was made more complicated as Maestro Foster resigned in 1978. There was a two-year interregnum, during which guest conductors provided both blessings and curses.

Sir Alexander Gibson was appointed HSO’s Principal Guest Conductor. Emeritus Director of the Scottish National Orchestra, he had undoubtedly well earned his knighthood. HSC sang for him twice in the interregnum – Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in November 1978 and music of Richard Wagner in May 1979. Later, in the Comissiona era, he would guest conduct Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy (November 1981), and Holst’s The Planets (April 1982). Gerontius was well received by reviewers. But by May 1979 something else was brewing. Here was a conductor who seemingly did not provide a regular beat, either to us or to the orchestra! It was as if his occasional motions were meant to confirm the tempo that we had set. If we responded too literally to what we dutifully observed, we would be adding some rather strange variations in tempo or dynamics. The actual problem was alcoholism. Babikian quietly explained to us, “When in doubt, follow the Concertmaster, who is actually leading the orchestra.” We promptly followed those special instructions and did very well. Most audience members probably didn’t have a clue about what was going on. Gibson ‘redeemed’ himself in a final encounter, by conducting Walton’s mighty Belshazzar’s Feast (May 1983). This was his ‘signature piece.’ One reviewer described the performance as ‘noisy, boisterous, and great fun.”[60] Another stated ‘Gibson’s major asset for Belshazzar’s Feast was the Houston Symphony Chorale, one of the best large choruses in the country.”[61]

Far better feelings come from our encounters with Erich Bergel, a young German and candidate for the permanent position, who conducted the Brahms Requiem in October 1979 and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in May 1980. We fell in love with Bergel. Virginia Babikian counted his Brahms Requiem concert series as one of her all time favorites.[62] Many hoped that Bergel would become the permanent maestro – but that was not to be.

Also prominent during this interregnum was HSO’s Associate Conductor Bill Harwood, a youthful and dynamic product of the Yale musical environment. In addition to Christmas Pops and Messiahs, he conducted HSC in several subscription concerts. A pinnacle for HSC and Harwood was his later conducting of Stephen Paulus’ contemporary Letters for the Times (December 1981, in an HSO Chamber Orchestra Series concert). Halfway into the rehearsals for this difficult contemporary work, this writer realized that every nuance, every entrance, every cutoff was reliably coming from Harwood – and that HSC participants could stop worrying, and just place themselves in Harwood’s hands. It is a pity that Harwood’s abrupt resignation in 1983, and death within two years terminated his brilliant career start.

During the interregnum there were two special and marvelous Pops events. The Ultimate Musical Voyage, a “sound and laser light” show in the new Summit Auditorium, took advantage of the craze over 1977’s Star Wars to present Star Wars music, Holst’s The Planets and other futuristic music. Bill Harwood conducted in January 1978 and then repeated the successful show in June of that same year. July 1978 saw HSC joining HSO in seven performances of a joyful Walt Disney concert – packed audiences were loaded with appreciative children and parents, hearing favorites from Fantasia and other Disney gems.[63] Similar ‘ad hoc’ summer presentations continue to the present, July 2006’s Video Games Live, conducted by Jack Wall being an example.

Romanticizing with Sergiu Comissiona, 1980-1988

HSC sang for the first time with the new maestro Sergiu Comissiona for the Berlioz Requiem in November 1980. His swan song was the Verdi Requiem on April 1988. In total he conducted HSC in thirty-four separate concert sequences totaling sixty-four performances. That is almost four concert sequences per season – a large number of encounters with the principal artistic advisor. Despite his shy, reticent behavior toward HSC, Comissiona appreciated choral music and used it.Under Comissiona we undertook a “Berlioz” cycle – which took us through the Requiem, Romeo et Juliette, La Damnation de Faust, Lelio, and even a taste of Trojans. Once we mastered the nuances of the French language for the first of these French works, the cycle was a joy.

On the positive side, Comissiona gave us innately musical but never “boisterous”[64] edits. He was interpreting very artistically – often in the Romantic spirit that was his musical genre. On the negative side, Sergiu’s command of the English language and his understanding of vocal technique were limited. We would try to help him with the words – the phrase that came out would be an expression of feeling rather than a positive musical instruction.

Virginia Babikian, and later Charles Hausmann, had difficulties reaching and communicating with Comissiona prior to piano rehearsals to ferret out tempo, dynamics, and phrasing.[65] So piano rehearsals often contained surprises! Comissiona tended to end piano rehearsals early. He would conduct us through a section, tell us verbally how he wanted it changed, but then often not have us go back and sing it his way. What kind of allegiance to ourselves or to the Symphony audiences can we exhibit when the opportunity to improve our product is cut short?

Guest Conductors During the Comissiona Tenure

During the Comissiona tenure, HSO management experimented with single-composer concerts celebrating 20th-century composers. These concerts met with mixed public reception but produced richly varied experiences for HSC, which was involved with five:

·        Krzstoff Penderecki. In February 1981 HSC sang this Polish composer/conductor’s Psalms of David, under the baton of the composer himself. This writer remembers sitting in one of the many empty seats for the second half, absorbing unfamiliar music, feeling good about the event and HSC participation, but understanding why general audiences stayed away.

·        Leonard Bernstein. In June 1983 HSO celebrated its 70th anniversary with an all-Bernstein concert in Miller Theater. HSC sang Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, but under Comissiona’s baton; Bernstein conducted HSO in the remainder of the concert. The audience patiently sat through a pre-concert thundershower, dried off, and celebrated the rest of the event. For us there was no more meaningful concert. Centenarian General Maurice Hirsch, founder of the Symphony, had the seat of honor – he died that August. (Nine HSC women performed Mendelssohn’s Lift Thine Eyes at his funeral.)

·        Sir Michael Tippett. In January 1985 HSO and HSC celebrated Sir Michael’s 80th birthday by singing his drama A Child of our Time. Comissiona conducted, but Tippett was all over town in his yellow tennis shoes, joyfully attending all rehearsals and concerts, and HSC members got to sing Happy Birthday to him. This was a repeat performance of A Child of our Time – when sung in November 1977 it was the first work that HSC prepared under Babikian leadership. In 2005 HSC included its arrangements of African-American spirituals on our all-choral CD. No choral singer is complete until he or she has participated in the pathos and redemption of this moving work.

·        Ernst Bloch. In January 1987 (in the Hausmann years) Comissiona led us in a performance of Bloch’s Sacred Service. This was performed as worship, as the composer intended, in the temple of Congregation Beth Israel, with Cantor Robert M. Gerber. If we needed proof of its significance, it came at the Thursday Orchestra rehearsal, when we had in attendance every cantor in Houston.[66]

·        Gunther Schuller. In February 1988 (also in the Hausmann era) HSC joined with HSO in a concert led by Schuller, a contemporary who is equally at home with jazz and with contemporary classical music. HSC performed his The Power Within Us, conducted by Schuller and narrated by Ara Carpathian. The work “fails.”[67] For years after, a muffled, rhythmic, unison-spoken “In-dians to cap-ture” from the HSC men was a throaty caricature of a line from this work.

Pops Series Participation

HSO concerts of “accessible” music have been a part of the HSC scene since November 1955, when the Chorale participated in a concert of Oklahoma! selections, conducted by HSO Associate Conductor Maurice Bonney. But it was not until May 1984 (Broadway Tunes, conducted by Erich Kunzel), that our Pops appearances would become more regular. HSC participated in a similar Pops concert in July 1984, Richard Buckley leading, and then a subscription Pops in April 1985, with Kunzel again in charge. The Pops story will be continued later in this history.

Singing in Summer Festivals

Starting in 1982, HSO embarked on expanded summer marketing, through the holding of summer festivals. Modeled after festivals of other orchestras, these series had names like “Mostly Mozart.” Choral music, with its audience appeal, was prominent and created both blessings and curses. Take, for example, the five festival concerts of summer 1982, the first summer season. On June 30, 1982, HSC sang choruses from Carmen in Miller Theater. On July 13 HSC sang Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 (and recorded it on June 27). On July 24 HSC sang both Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Haydn’s Harmonienmesse (Mass No. 12 in B-flat). The latter is a delightful work, whose performance got raves from audience and reviewers. But look at that schedule – for HSO, it was at most two rehearsals per work. But for the singers of HSC it was immense preparation, coming on the heels of a busy season.[68] In 1983 there were two summer engagements (Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy). In 1984 there were again two summer concerts with HSC (choruses from Bizet’s Carmen, and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess). In 1985 HSC sang separate repertoire in five summer concerts, including Beethoven’s Ninth, the Tchaikowsky 1812 Overture, music of Edvard Grieg, Mozart choruses, and Verdi opera choruses. In 1986 came Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha. In 1987, Rodgers & Hammerstein Pops, then a “Mozart Answers Salieri” concert (F. Murray Abraham narrating). All of this was excellent music – enjoyable to perform. But coming after busy regular seasons, the number of concerts and the amount of preparation required was pure psychological overload. HSC, like any chorus, needs a respite between seasons. The Summer Festival program, particularly the load in the first years, was in danger of over-using HSC.

There have been two more recent salvations:

·        The opening of Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands in 1992, and the migration of much of HSO’s summer activity to that venue, thankfully restricts HSC use because the Woodlands stage is not large.

·        The “Blowup,” described immediately below, forcefully brought to HSO management attention the problem of over-use of volunteer chorus talent.

Since 1987 summer opportunities have continued. But there has never been more than one in any given summer, and they have been successes on a voluntary basis, with less than the full contingent of HSC singers. The summer choices have been opportunities for different music, and in some cases, different venues, that have enriched us.

The Big Blowup

In 1983, relationships between elected HSC member leadership, the HSC Directors, and Symphony management simmered, and finally blew up in January 1984. Out of the reconciliation came many positive steps.

The causes are complex. They include:

The real eruption took place in January 1984. When Toeplitz realized what he had on his hands, he acted promptly, taking all the necessary steps:

Some of the positive results:

Here is the list of our Chorus Managers:

In the period immediately prior to the new HSO agreement:

·        Sandy Graf  (1975-81). Moving from being Chorus President, Sandy virtually defined the Chorus Manager job.

·        Lee Stevens (1981- Spring 1986). She was a veteran of the chorus, with over 35 service years.

In the new era, following the task force recommendations:

·        Claudia Leis (Fall 1986-87)

·        Sherry Terry (1987-88)

·        Marilyn Dyess (1988-98)

·        Cheryl McIver Whinney (1998-2001)

·        Susan Scarrow (2002 to present)

The last three were particularly ideal. Because they were already HSC members when they assumed the Chorus Manager position, they could begin the task without skipping a heartbeat. Susan Scarrow has been the key to moving the Chorus operations into the Internet age. Her organizational skills are very evident.

Touring in Texas

Aside from four concerts in Galveston,[76] HSC has had only five opportunities to sing in Texas outside of the Houston Metropolitan Area:

·        In May 1984 Women of HSC flew with HSO to perform Mahler’s Third in Scottish Rite Cathedral, Dallas.

·        In April 1986 the entire chorus was bused to College Station to sing Carmina Burana with the Brazos Valley Symphony and Chorus, directed by a young, grinning Franz Krager. This and the previous trip were in the Virginia Babikian period of leadership.

·        In September 1988, now in the period of Charles Hausmann leadership, HSC was again bused to College Station to sing a Verdi Requiem with Franz Krager and his Orchestra and Chorus.

·        In April 1990 HSC was bused to Corpus Christi to sing Carmina Burana with the Corpus Christi Symphony Orchestra in new Bayfront Plaza Auditorium, under the baton of Cornelius Eberhardt.

·        In November 1990 HSC repeated the Corpus Christi journey, singing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, again under Cornelius Eberhardt, but with two local Corpus Christi choruses joining HSC.

In 2007, with seven trips to Mexico City, four trans-Atlantic trips accomplished,  and a fifth trans-Atlantic trip looming, it is hard to think very highly of these Texas sagas. But these Texas trips had effects far beyond their modest musical goals:

·        The Chorus camaraderie of the trips was an immense builder of HSC spirit. We remember in particular the riot of feeling on the buses during the return trips, as adrenaline-reinforced singers celebrated.[77]

·        We met Franz Krager, now a professor at the U of H, and leader of its orchestra.

·        We met Cornelius Eberhardt, who in 1994 would be responsible for getting HSC the key Graz, Austria, (AIMS Music Festival) invitation that would create that year’s European trip.

·        And, in some small way we hope that singing with us helped the local choruses with which HSC sang to rise to new heights in subsequent years on their own – just as HSC had been helped by the Denton Choir concerts in Houston in 1947-48.

A Change in Leadership: Ed Polochick for a Moment

Both Virginia Babikian and David Wehr resigned effective at the end of the 1985-86 season. The chorus celebrated their leadership in a banquet.

Symphony Administration wasted no time. On May 27, 1986, a letter notified HSC members that the new Director-in-chief would be Ed Polochick, director of the Baltimore Symphony Chorus and faculty member of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where he had multiple conducting roles.[78] Polochick would continue to live and work in Baltimore, visiting us periodically, particularly just before performances, when he would “finish us off.” We were to have a resident Associate Director – Charles Hausmann, a faculty member at the Music School of the University of Houston. HSC assembled in early September for two major, concentrated weekends, in which we met and rehearsed with both of the new staff. Polochick was certainly dynamic. But how would this two-director arrangement work? Many of us had reservations. After the workshops Charles Hausmann led rehearsals, as planned. The September 26 rehearsal came, and we were told the startling news “Ed Polochick has been in a very serious automobile accident – both legs broken, multiple internal injuries – he will do no flying for months!”

A Change in Leadership: And then Charles Hausmann, 1986-2007

So that was that. From September 23 1986 Charles Hausmann was for all intents HSC’s sole Director. We were well prepared for Edo De Waart (big-boned, smiling Dutchman conductor of the Minnesota orchestra) on October 11 and 12, when HSC sang a Mozart Requiem. The busy season included eight engagements – and thanks to Charles Hausmann HSC was ready for each series. But for most of that season the masthead of the HSC roster in Symphony programs showed in big bold print “EDWARD POLOCHICK, DIRECTOR.” “Charles Hausmann, Associate Director,” was in the smaller print. Such is the rigor of contracts. There had been no official word – so in a June rehearsal we presented Charles with a symbolic baton. And we told him in no uncertain terms – with or without HSO management notice – we recognized Charles as our director, valued his service, and enjoyed preparing with him.

Who is Charles Hausmann, and what is he like? A product of Westminster Choir College, Trenton State College, and the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, he had held positions at Western Kentucky University and Westminster Choir College. In 1986 he had just completed his first year as Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Studies at the University of Houston, directing major choirs. Now a full professor, and the co-author of a respected sourcebook of choral music,[79] he leads us while simultaneously overseeing a full platter of choral activities at the University. We know him as a consummate executor of his craft. In contrast with his predecessors, Hausmann strives to give us the overall picture of the work to be learned at the earliest opportunity. We may stumble at first – but correcting those details will come in due time. He is proud of his ability to gauge just how many rehearsal hours a work will take, and the reliability of his estimates continues to amaze us.

Hausmann’s training process includes much count singing – especially since HSC’s encounters with Robert Shaw. Hausmann moves us from mere “note pounding” into better intonation (pitch accuracy), focus of sound, dynamics, and interpretation as soon as our talents permit. Despite our over twenty years with Charles, member turnover and our own lapses mean that intonation, focus and attendance remain the trio of “bogeys” of our singing. Here are goals for the future.

Hausmann prides himself in the degree to which he strives to get advance notice of each conductor’s special performance requirements – dynamics, beat, tempos, phrasing, cutoffs, special handling of critical transitions. Some conductors seem to play “hard to get” – it is clear that sessions to convey this information are not their favorite cups of tea – but it pays off for us and for Houston audiences.

The HSC that Hausmann took over in fall 1986 was not as strong as it had been ten years before. The decline had been gradual. The surest evidence was Virginia Babikian’s own words.[80] Chorus numbers were depleted – Comissiona gave Hausmann ‘marching orders’ to increase them.[81] But, as in 1969 under Don Strong, while the increase was under way it was more difficult to raise the quality of the singing. We can be thankful that recruiting has created adequate numbers, and that a focus on quality has ensued. Hausmann concurs – the chorus of 2007 is a far better chorus than that of 1987.[82]

This season Hausmann celebrates his twentieth anniversary as Director of HSC. As THE 60TH anniversary is celebrated in May 2007, he will have led us in preparation of 499 concerts – fully 58 % of the 864 concerts of HSC’s entire 61 years.[83] With this season, Charles ties founder Al Urbach as being the longest-serving HSC Director.[84]

Through Charles Hausmann the chorus has benefited from outstanding opportunities that reach beyond Houston:

With Hausmann came the opportunity to use rehearsal halls at the University of Houston. HSC appreciated the free parking. But rehearsal halls in the old U of H Music School building were less than ideal; rehearsing at the U of H was done only occasionally. Jones Hall, First Methodist Church, and Christ Church Episcopal continued to be used when HSC was shut out of the Jones Hall rehearsal space. Only with the opening of the new John and Rebecca Moores Building at the U of H (Fall 1997) did its new Choral Rehearsal Room become HSC’s “permanent” rehearsal space. Those who did not suffer the previous agonies of shifting do not know how well off HSC is these days!

Hausmann took the entire rehearsing load at first, but an assistant was clearly needed. Through Hausmann’s work, a cooperative arrangement was made whereby a U of H graduate assistant became HSC’s Assistant/Associate conductor. The first of these was a Master’s candidate – Holly Kooken (now Holly Wostal). With the establishment of a Doctoral program in Choral Conducting at the U of H, Betsy Weber, and all of the subsequent Associates were Doctoral Candidates. We have been blessed with a superb succession:

·        Holly Kooken (now Holly Wostal) (1988-1990)

·        Betsy Weber (1990-1997) Dr. Weber, the U of H’s first DMA in Choral Conducting, is now a tenured U of H faculty member.

·        Eduardo Garcia-Novelli (1997-2002). Dr Garcia is now head of choral activities at Lamar University.

·        Roger S. Keele (2002-2004)

·        A. Jan Taylor (2004-2006)

·        Richard Robbins (2006 to present)

Singing Between ‘Maestroships,’ from June 1988[85]

During the period between maestro Sergiu Comissiona and his successor, HSO brought in Niklaus Wyss for significant duty as Associate Conductor. Wyss, a Swiss by nationality and permanent residency, was a “journeyman conductor,” near retirement, adequate but rarely inspiring. He conducted HSC in Messiahs (including a sing-along), a Mozart Requiem, a Mozart Te Deum, and an Allegri Misereri. For us his most significant and satisfying series was Haydn’s Creation – a delightful work that transcended Wyss. Audience reaction varied. Roger Cutler was so inspired by our singing that he auditioned for HSC. Reviewers and chorus members liked it.[86] In contrast, as the rather long work plodded through its Part Three we lost some attendees!

A particular joy came in June 1988, when the HSC provided the music for seven performances of Orff’s Carmina Burana by the Houston Ballet. The black-robed singers stood in darkness on each wing, women on one side and men on the other. One had to rely on maestro Glenn Landdon’s baton, for if you waited for the sound from the opposite wing you were already too late. The entire Carmina had to be memorized.[87] This was in the exciting inaugural year of the Ballet’s new home – Brown Auditorium of Wortham Theater.

The interregnum also included singing the vocally challenging Beethoven Missa Solemnis under Robert Page, noted Cleveland choral and orchestral conductor, in April 1989.[88] We suspect Page would have liked more time to work on our vocal techniques. (HSC was not yet the chorus it is now.)

Exulting with Christoph Eschenbach, 1989-99

Christoph Eschenbach excited the Houston Symphony Orchestra in his “trial performances” – but repertoire dictated that HSC would not be a part of that process. It took until February 1989 for us to engage for the first time – by entering “hallowed territory,” Christoph Eschenbach’s world of Gustav Mahler. Eschenbach was embarking on the cycle of performing all of the Mahler Symphonies. HSC’s first opportunity was the Second, or Resurrection Symphony. The choral portion is short – confined to the second half of the fourth movement. But the rehearsing was anything but short or perfunctory. We learned how tirelessly precise Christoph could be – how time after time we would repeat a phrase as he patiently taught us how he wanted the ideas expressed. We learned how intensely quiet a triple ppp must be. We learned how absolutely controlled an Eschenbach crescendo must be. We spent every available moment in that two-and-a-half hour piano rehearsal straining to respond to every request, for here was a German Romantic who knew what he wanted and cared enough for our music making to devote his energy for us – and we felt we had to respond.

The performances were equally exciting. So were the later performances of the Mahler Third (women of HSC). Then, in May 1994 came the EighthSymphony of a Thousand. By adding singers from the Dallas Symphony Chorus, plus the boy-choir, chorus numbers reached 431. Nine quality soloists, including soprano Heidi Grant Murphy up near the “rafters” with the boy choir, plus a massive orchestra produced a unique event for Houston that ranks high on many chorus member lists.

During his eleven years, HSC performed many of the great works under Eschenbach – and in each case thrilled to the uniqueness of the Eschenbach interpretations. There is something about singing for a maestro who knows every work by heart – in minute detail – and shows it by cueing each choral part as well as each orchestral lead. In his eleven seasons HSC had eighty individual concerts to make music with him, including the following series:

During the Eschenbach years HSC and HSO was blessed with David Wax, a singing HSO Executive Director.  When he could (and that was often), he joined our Bass section. In normal circumstances, HSC repertoire is set by the team of the Maestro, HSO’s Director of Artistic Planning and HSO’s executive director.[92]  We suspect that Executive Director Wax’s’ choral interests were a factor in our repertoire of those years. From fall 1996 the Senior Director of Artistic planning has been Aurelie Desmarais, also a singer, who has on occasion joined our ranks. Orchestra Manager Tom Fay joined our ranks for a few late-1980’s seasons. HSO staff members Katia Baizan and Linda Renner joined, and still remain HSC members.

In the Eschenbach years a “high-rise” platform replaced rickety risers. The greater pitch of the platform improved both our sight lines and our projection of sound. And, most satisfactorily, quiet black padded chairs replaced noisy metal folding chairs.[93]

Did the excitement of having had both Eschenbach and Hausmann for over ten years reduce our attrition rate? No! An examination of Years of Service made about 1995 showed longevity virtually identical to the 1983 attrition statistics at the height of the Chorus problems, and identical to the rate in 1955 (both noted above). If you had four service years, you still had more HSC experience than half of the singers. High attrition appears to be a characteristic of our society rather than of the state of our organization at any instant. Constant recruiting is as important as it ever was.

Highlights of Guest Conductors in the Eschenbach Years

·        Robert Shaw, the brightest star in the heaven of Choral Conductors, has a long history with HSC. In 1971 (workshop on Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis), 1974 (workshop on Bach’s B Minor Mass and St. John Passion), and 1975 (subscription concerts of Britten’s War Requiem), the Chorus met Robert Shaw in his prime. After a gap HSC renewed the engagement with Shaw, beginning with Mendelssohn’s Elijah in March 1992. Though he was exciting, HSC spent most of its rehearsal time learning how to train and sing in the “Shaw” manner.[94] For later engagements, where we knew more of what was expected, there were countless moments of joy – in the Berlioz Requiem in spring 1993 – and Britten’s War Requiem in fall 1993. Due to the maturing friendship of Shaw and Hausmann, there were later encounters in the U of H environment, documented below. The tragedy was that this was in Shaw’s twilight years – ill health and finally Shaw’s death robbed us of two major opportunities. Shaw was a passionate promoter of good choral music. A minister’s son, he felt that both good choral technique and full understanding and support of text were keys to stellar performance.

·        Christopher Seaman conducted us in R. Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony in October 1992, in a concert series that probably ranks among the top ten of HSC’s all-time musical peaks. Part of its thrill was meeting Dame Ursula, Vaughan Williams’ widow, in rehearsal.

·        Peter Schreier led us in Bach’s St. John Passion in October 1994. Schreier, a noted German tenor, not only conducted but sang the role of the Evangelist. Our opening chorus tempos were set, not by his baton, but by the tempo of his singing of the preceding phrases! In true recognition of the ensemble, our reduced chorus (80 voices) was placed on stage left, with the HSO chamber orchestra stage right, and Peter and other soloists between. For many of HSC the ensemble music making of this series was one of the high water points of our entire HSC careers.

·        Robert Shaw was to have conducted us in Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in Door-Yard Bloom’d, a moving setting of Walt Whitman’s poem commemorating the death of Abraham Lincoln. When a medical problem prevented Shaw’s coming to Houston, Stephen Stein, HSO’s Associate Conductor, stepped in for a memorable performance.

·        Nicholas McGegan, conducted us in Haydn’s delightful The Seasons, new “Robert Shaw” English language edition in February 1994.

·        Hugh Wolff conducted us in John Adams’ Harmonium in March 1999. Chorus reactions were mixed – all the way from ‘mountaintop experience’ to ‘thank goodness that’s over.’

Introductory Workshops

All-day workshops have been used to initiate the chorus at the beginning of seasons or the beginning of rehearsals for new works:

·        Virginia Babikian used all-day sessions at Columbia Lakes Conference Center to accelerate learning of summer festival repertoire. There were about five such sessions at Columbia Lakes, including the three in Summer 1982 described above, as well as other similar sessions in Houston.

·        In September 1985 the season began with a two-day workshop led by Margaret Hillis, of Chicago Symphony Chorus fame.

·        In September 1991, during Charles Hausmann’s tenure, guest choral conductor Paul Salamunovich led an opening two-day fall clinic.

·        In the past ten years the Chorus Endowment has sponsored three introductory all-day workshops – one in the Hotel Galvez, Galveston, and two in Houston. An added feature was talks on ‘choral health’ by Dr Sharon Radionoff, professional voice clinician.

Such workshops can do far more than note pounding. As HSC begins a new season, with some new personnel, it is important to get the Chorus to listen to each other, and begin to develop the focused ensemble sound that is so vital to good performance. That listening is accomplished most easily in a-cappella moments in a workshop atmosphere.

Singing Pops with Newton Wayland

HSC met Newt Wayland, the new Principal Pops Conductor in April 1987, for a concert of Rodgers and Hammerstein. He conducted HSC in eleven series – five fourth-of-July celebrations (see below), one other Miller Theater gig, and six Pops subscription programs. The Pops subscription concerts highlighted Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Lerner & Loewe and George Gershwin. Normally, each had two or three soloists, who were well choreographed in their singing. HSC added much with its sound. On occasion attempts were made to choreograph us – but there wasn’t much you could do with singers with music folders in one hand!

Charles Hausmann relates, “Newt had a superb way to deal with Pops pronunciation and dialects. “Chew your words” he would say. For the Chorus Director, he would always provide a tape, in which he would play the music on a piano and sing it, all the while commenting on pronunciation, phrasing, commas, cutoffs, changes in the music, etc.” Besides being entertaining, these tapes were superb vehicles for communicating. On the negative side, Newt’s scores were a mess – re-arranging the harmonization by pencil scrawl was a common ‘first rehearsal’ task. Hausmann appeared to wait until the last minute to get us into the “Wayland” pronunciation – particularly the hard R’s. Was Charles afraid that Pops pronunciation would penetrate our classical repertoire? For Wayland’s last concert, the “Gershwin” celebration of May 28-30, 1993, we finally saw it done the “right” way – Wayland presented HSC with “perfect” scores, dedicated to Charles Hausmann, Scott Holshouser and HSC, with every Wayland harmonization, marking and pronunciation explicitely specified. Wayland was “out-Shawing” Robert Shaw!

The Chorus also wants to highlight a Pops concert entitled “Radio’s Golden Age,” Conducted in November 1988 by Norman Leyden, it was a re-creation of two ‘Your Hit Parade’ shows. Many radio ads were reproduced verbatim – our Dave Knoll and Zelda Dvoretsky brought down the house with their rendition of “So mild, so full, so firmly packed – Lucky Strike means fine tobacco.”

Singing at Miller Outdoor Theater

Miller Theater appeared on the Houston Chorale’s activities as early as 1947. But the “Miller Theater” of that day was the portico-stage and lily pond that one glimpses as one first passes the statue of the mounted Sam Houston. The portico could barely hold forty musicians. HSO first played there on August 8, 1940. The Present Miller Theater, the shell, covered seating, and hill for casual attendees, opened in 1968.[95]

HSO became one of the many Houston arts organizations that presented summer works there. HSO has a “hammerlock” on the presentation of a Fourth of July[96] concert. Prepared once by Babikian and then by Hausmann, HSC participated 1986-92, excepting 1987. Except for 1986’s Sergiu Comissiona, Principal Pops Conductor Newt Wayland was the conductor. The weather for the day was inevitably HOT HOT HOT – and Miller Theater’s forced air is designed to help the orchestra, not the singers massed behind. The afternoon rehearsal and the evening concert were always separated by a barbecue feast, prepared by HSO Stage Manager Don Jackson in his moonlighting role as barbecue caterer. HSC would view the Orchestra’s first half performance from the area to the left of the stage, where a rustic wooden fence enclosed an area reserved for us that we immodestly dubbed the “Houston Corral.” HSC members and spouses also participated by acting in costume as “cannoneers” for the rows of cannon on platforms to left and right of the audience. (Never fear – the cannon “blasts,” for Tchaikowsky’s 1812 Overture, were set off by the electronic signal of an HSO percussionist in the control booth.) We were responsible for the “integration” of the cannon corps – at HSC goading, women spouses and women members of HSC first gleefully performed that duty, in trousers, their hair neatly bundled under their three-cornered hats. We singers also remember the stampede to get to our cars during the fireworks, in order to beat the exiting crowds.

Another ‘Maestro’ Transition, Fall 1999 – Spring 2001

During this period between maestros HSC was fortunate. The increasing national regard of the choral repertoire and HSC’s own increasing reputation as a chorus, plus a responsive HSO artistic management gave us a prime series of guest-conducted works in the interim, including at least three of the many candidates for the permanent position.:

·        Bruce Hangen conducted HSC in a Pops concert in October 1999. Its inclusion of a medley from Lion King brought Swahili into the list of languages in which HSC has performed.

·        Peter Schreier, beloved master of Bach, returned for a stirring performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor in November 1999. This work, a stalwart of the Chorale’s early years, had fallen out of the repertoire in more recent times. The joy of this work includes multiple opportunities to savor “duets” between vocal soloists and solo orchestral instruments.

·        Candidate Roberto Abbado conducted us in an appreciated Verdi Requiem series in May 2000.

·        Candidate Claus Peter Flor led Dvorak’s Stabat Mater in September 2000. To many this was “an incredible, emotional experience.”[97]

·        Candidate Andreas Delfs led in Beethoven’s Mass in C Major and Choral Fantasia in March-April 2001. The latter performances featured our own Scott Holshouser at the piano.

·        David Robertson led in performances of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky in May 2001.

Throwing Out but Surviving after Tropical Storm Allison of June 8 2001.

Locals know the story of this ‘high water point’ of a different sort – the torrential flooding as Tropical Storm Allison passed, then passed again. A raging Buffalo Bayou tore a rift in the basement wall of the Opera House – and smashed basement-level doors soon led to flooding of the Civic Center garages, which in turn used the renowned tunnel system to flood all of the basements of all of the surrounding buildings, including the Jones Hall basements (Traps and below). Music instruments, including cellos, harps and Steinway grand pianos were in splinters, and HSO’s Music Library totally submerged. The Symphony Chorus Music Library was also submerged. Chorus Librarian Tony Sessions was there as recovery began, in tears as he watched the soggy masses from the HSC library move out the door to the dumpster. HSO is still paying the added expense of rebuilding the Chorus Library as we sing each work. The recovery of the Jones Hall concert hall was relatively rapid – the Fall 2001 schedule proceeded as planned. But it was a year later, June 8 2002 before HSO personnel moved back to their traps-level offices. It was still another half year before the basement rehearsal room could be used for chorus warm-ups. HSC bore the inconvenience of warming up in the adjacent Pennzoil building.

Singing with Hans Graf, 2000 to the Present

HSC met candidate Hans Graf March 17-20 2000, for four performances of Carmina Burana, one of his trial concert series. Hausmann had us memorize almost all of the Carmina sections. That meant we could devote all of our attention to this smiling, approachable Austrian, a strong personality contrast to the more formal, dignified Eschenbach. With that unified attention came better response and better projection. Graf, the chorus and the orchestra electrified the audience and reviewers[98] – here was the front-running candidate who became the new maestro!

HSC participated in Graf’s first regular season Opening Night, September 15 2001, by singing Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. This was an unusual episode in our collective histories. On the one hand we were joyously celebrating the inaugural of a new Maestro. On the other hand we were still reeling from the Jun 8 2001 flooding of Jones Hall by Tropical Storm Allison. But all that paled – this was four days after ‘9/11.’ Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus was added. The entire concert was broadcast by NPR. This writer feels that our rehearsal on 9/11 and the concert of 9/15 belong on HSC’s list of mountain peak experiences.

It took several more concerts to prove to us that the initial encounter with Hans Graf was no fluke. Here is a person devoted to his craft, innately musical in how he uses our sound, able to work intensely with our own Chorus Director.[99] To date, HSC has sung sixteen series and fifty-one concerts with the maestro.[100]

·        The standard Germanic works are there: Beethoven’s Ninth (two series) and Missa Solemnis, Brahms’ Requiem, Nänie, Schicksalslied, and Triumphlied, Bruckner’s Te Deum, Mozart’s Requiem, Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

·        But, in addition, he introduced HSC and Houston audiences to other Germanic works: Mahler’s Das klagende Lied, Schubert’s Die Gesang der Geister uber den Wasser, Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Viennese Delights.

·        Other standards include Verdi’s Requiem; Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances; Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe; Holst’s The Planets.

·        Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky was again brought to Houston Audiences. This time, closely coordinated projection of the entire movie gave audiences a heightened appreciation of the programmatic drama of the music.[101]

·        Kodaly’s Te Deum. was new to Houston audiences.

·        Fall 2006 opened with a concert that began with John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, a new and riveting tribute to the families of those who died in the 9/11 tragedy. The concert concluded with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Audience reaction to the Adams work was mixed – from tears of appreciation to boredom. The generally very high marks from HSC members tell it all – this is a work that grows with familiarity.

Guest Conductors during the Era of Hans Graf

HSO continues to enrich our choral experiences by bringing to us many distinguished guest conductors:

·        Claus Peter Flor and HSC are in a continuing relationship. We first met in September 2000 for the enthralling Dvorak Stabat Mater, new to us. That was so satisfying that Flor was back in 2003 for the poignant Britten War Requiem[102] and in May 2007 for the Wagner concerts that now cap our 60th Anniversary season. He will be back in February 2008 for Orff’s Carmina Burana and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

·        Lawrence Foster, after a 25-year hiatus from HSC returned to conduct us in the difficult Bernstein Kaddish Symphony No. 3 in March 2004. There were tense moments – but many of us are proud to have been a part of this performance.[103]

·        Nicholas McGegan, known and admired for his Messiah leadership (2002, 2004), actually first conducted HSC in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Händel’s Coronation Anthems in October 1991. He returned for Haydn’s delightful The Seasons (new “Robert Shaw” English edition in February 1994); then he led us in Carmina Burana in March 2004. This is a long-term friendship worthy of cultivation.

·        Manfred Honeck led a moving performance of the so-called ‘unfinished’ Mozart Requiem. Stopping at the point in the score that Mozart put down his pen, we concluding with the Mozart Ave Verum Corpus. We were blessed with soloists Heidi Grant Murphy, Marietta Simpson and John Cheek, all in one concert series.

·        Asher Fisch led us in Samuel Barber’s Prayers of Kierkegaard in October 2001. Fisch replaced Robert Spano, who remained with his Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra for their ‘9/11’ memorial concert.

·        We prepared for Ilan Volkov for what would have been the rare privilege of singing Rachmaninoff’s The Bells in March 2003. This concert series was canceled because of the spring 2003 HSO musicians strike. Perhaps HSC will perform it sometime in the future. A cancellation due to a musician’s strike had also occurred in fall 1976.

Singing Pops with Michael Krajewski

Michael Krajewski arrived as Principal Pops Conductor in fall 2000; since then he has directed all Christmas Pops. Here is a man with tongue-in-cheek style who is a master of humor and a master at delivery of approachable music. We can rely on him to program concerts attuned to his audience. His major sponsorship of Dallas composer Randol Alan Bass led to the two impressive new arrangements of the familiar carols. These are the cornerstones of Krajewski’s (and our) two Christmas CD’s.

Krajewski is innately musical, making good suggestions to us. But for the most part he relies on Hausmann for both our vocal technique and our basic dynamics. Thus in Pops, more than in any of the regular series concerts it is up to HSC to sing with appropriate style and technique without further concert-time guidance.[104] We observe Krajewski and Hausmann working well with each other – a welcome sign. Interactions with Krajewski expanded beyond Christmas Pops in February 2002 for An American Salute and in February 2005 and November 2006 for Pops Knockouts. The latter concept was “kitsch,” but execution was marvelous. Bravo! Overall, Krajewski’s Pops repertoire is a significant change from that of Newt Wayland. The audience for what Newt Wayland previously delivered is fast aging. In order to attract and keep younger attendees – i.e., to survive – Pops must look around and modify what it delivers. Concerts of the past few seasons show that Krajewski and the HSO staff who work with him are doing just that, apparently with success.[105] 

On related matters, HSC enjoyed Lord of the Rings Symphony in summer 2004 and 2005. In the first of these our own Carolee Weber and Po-Chao Huang sang solo parts.

The Women ‘Ooh’ and ‘Aah’ (and Sometimes the Men Too)

The orchestral repertoire includes numbers in which neutral syllables from singers, usually ‘Ooh’ or ‘Aah’ are the sole contribution. The composer treats the human voice as another instrument. The singer’s reward suffers: the precious few minutes of singing are accompanied with the normal hassle of getting to and from the concert. An entire evening is taken up, whether the concert is a massive Missa Solemnis or just the ‘Ooh’ moments of Holst’s The Planets. What this misses is that to audiences the choral instrument often provides some of the highlights of the work involved. Our often-etherial moments are truly ‘heavenly.’ Symphony-goers thank us. Here are works of this nature. The first two rank in the top ten of works most often performed by HSC:

·        Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe Suites (Men and Women)

·        Holst’s The Planets (Women)

·        Debussy’s Les Sirenes from Nocturnes (Women). Typical would be April 2004’s concert series with Stêphane Denève conducting – the women loved him.

·        Debussy’s La Demoiselle Elue (Women)

·        Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica (Women and Men)

Joining University of Houston Musicians in Symphonic Choral Works

Through Charles Hausmann, HSC has been invited to join the U of H choirs in singing several major works under internationally known conductors in a workshop environment, followed by a public performance.

·        Jorge Velazco conducted Poulenc’s Gloria in July 1991 with the Texas Music Festival Orchestra. Though our subsequent May 1995 performance of this work with Eschenbach was far more satisfying, the 1991 engagement kept up our important friendship with Velazco.

·        Robert Shaw conducted the Verdi Requiem in September 1997. This concert was the climax of the Dedication Week events for the new Moores Opera House of the John and Rebecca Moores School of Music building on the U of H Campus. This writer will always remember the tireless repetition by the soloists, as Shaw worked and re-worked the choral accompaniment in rehearsal. We also made the electric discovery of Moores Opera House acoustics – we heard the pianissimo soprano solos over our accompaniment, as if she were facing us – a phenomenon impossible in Jones Hall.

·        Michael Lankaster replaced Robert Shaw, who died January 25, 1999, for the conducting of the Berlioz Requiem in March 1999. Randolph Lacy’s unaccompanied pianissimo tenor solo from the rafters of Moore’s Opera House was ethereal.

·        John Rutter conducted Brahms’ Requiem in March 2000. We value this experience, though we revere Rutter more for his choral editing and composing than for his conducting.

·        Franz Krager conducted a Mahler Second in 2006. This was a reunion, as some of us fondly remember HSC 1986 and 1988 bus trips to College Station to sing with him (see Touring in Texas above).

To Mexico City with Charles Hausmann

Hausmann has a nineteen-year association with the conductors of the Orquestra Sinfonica de Mineria, Mexico City. Jorge Velazco, modest, self-effacing leader, arranged financing of the bulk of HSC expenses. On his death in 2003, and also for 2005 our interaction with the orchestra, conducted by Carlos Spierer, continued. Seven HSC trips in all have taken place near the Labor Day week-end:

·        1988 – conducted by Jorge Velazco – Verdi’s Requiem.

·        (1991 – we re-encountered Jorge Velazco, but in Houston at the U of H for a Poulenc Gloria)

·        1996 – conducted by Jorge Velazco – Orff’s Carmina Burana and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.

·        1997 – conducted by Jorge Velazco – Verdi’s Requiem.

·        2000 – conducted by Jorge Velazco – Beethoven’s Ninth and various Wagner opera choruses

·        2002 – conducted by Jorge Velazco – Berlioz’ Requiem

·        2003 – conducted by Carlos Spierer – various opera choruses. On the death of Velazco days before, Spierer stepped in for what became two massive Velazco memorial concerts.  –. This was undoubtedly the longest rehearsal day and the longest concert ever sung by HSC. This concert was recorded.

·        2005—conducted by Carlos Spierer – Concert performance of Verdi’s Nabucco.

Audiences there are wildly enthusiastic, and in addition Mexico City and vicinity are filled with sights to see and restaurants to delight our palates. We hope that the series will continue.[106]

To England and Europe with Charles Hausmann:

The quality of HSC tour group singers has grown from trip to trip, as has HSC’s international reputation and ability to put together exciting concert venues. To discuss all the exciting concerts, wonderful sightseeing and rousing fellowship of the trips would occupy a narrative as long as this entire history!

·        May 1989: Europe. The key concert series was the Season Finale performances of Carmina Burana with the Basel (Switzerland) Symphony Orchestra, Horst Stein conducting. Other venues were Esch-zur-Alzette, Luxembourg, and Kortrijk, Belgium.

·        July 1994: Europe. Repertoire keys were Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Beethoven’s Mass in C Major. Concerts were in Graz, Austria, the Monastery of St. Lambrecht, Austria (both with the Graz Festival Orchestra), and Nuremberg, Germany (with the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra).

·        July 2000: England. The key was an invitation to join the London Symphony Chorus and the BBC Chorus of Wales to sing Mendelssohn’s St. Paul in a “Proms” concert in London’s historic Royal Albert Hall, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, directed by Richard Hickox.[107] In concerts in Birmingham (with the English Symphony Orchestra) and Malvern  Priory, the group sang Orff’s Carmina Burana, Bernstein’s The Lark, and Randall Thompson’s Alleluia.

·        May 2007: Vienna, Austria; Prague, Czech Republic; and Budapest, Hungary. Repertoire will include Brahms’ Requiem and R. Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem.

HSC’s Piano Accompanists

HSC has reveled in the quality of its accompanists. The standouts are as follows.

·        Edithanne Davis’ term was short, but she was the first Chorale pianist.

·        Catherine Kucera was Al Urbach’s accompanist for most of the Urbach years.

·        Delia (Dee Dee) Duson accompanied from the Bedford year through the heart of Don Strong’s years, 1968-1973.

·        Margaret Snapp was ‘masthead’ accompanist only in 1975, but served much longer.

·        Anne Schnoebelen was the accompanist from spring 1977 through spring 1984. Professor of Musicology and Chair of the Department of Music History at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice, she had a Piano Performance Master’s from the University of Illinois at Urbana.

·        Scott Holshouser, keyboard musician for the Houston Symphony, has been the HSC principal accompanist since September 1984. These twenty-three seasons are a longer tenure than that of any other HSC staff person. The consummate artist, Scott is at “performance level” of intensity at every rehearsal. Constantly aware of our singing, he often anticipates Hausmann’s reaction to our intonation problems or wrong notes. He effortlessly sight-reads the multi-staved voice parts or adds a soloist line to the accompaniment. Scott met HSC’s Eileen Gandin­­­­ in 1985 – they were married seven years later. As we celebrate this 60th Anniversary, celebrating Scott Holshouser seems entirely appropriate!

An Endowment for HSC

In its 50th Anniversary Year HSC initiated a Chorus Endowment. Gifts of chorus members, “matches” by members and alumni, corporate matches and grants, plus interest have raised the Endowment to $116,000, even prior to this year’s 60th Anniversary Endowment campaign. In its early years the Endowment sponsored workshops, and lectures on our repertoire. Annual funds available for use are approaching $5,000 and should increase each year, as we continue to contribute. HSC is just beginning to explore how these funds can be used. At this time the individual uses that are contemplated exceed annual available funds, so uses are not made each year. We hope to explore even more possible uses soon. Fortunately the endowment does not restrict uses beyond stating that they should be for “chorus enrichment” rather than for base expenses. That uses need HSO management approval is actually an advantage, because it forces HSO management to join HSC in brainstorming about what “chorus enrichment” could mean and encourages HSO management and staff to be “enablers” for the uses. An example of this collaboration occurred two years ago, when the chorus CD, sponsored by the Chorus Endowment was richly “enabled” by the knowledgeable HSO staff involved in the production of the CD.[108] 

In Memoriam

Many of the early people noted in this history are no longer living. Here are the known deceased, with dates of death: Virginia Babikian (Mar 22 1997), John Barbirolli (Jul 29 1970), Wayne Bedford (late May 1969), Ferenc Fricsay (Feb 20 1963), Sir Alexander Gibson (Jan 14 1995), Sandy Graf (2000 or 2001), Rebecca May Groh (Mar 2 2000), Clyde Hager (1974-75), Margaret Hillis (1998), Maurice Hirsch (Aug 1983), Ernst Hoffman (Jan 3 1955), Earle Jensen (Feb 1 2004), Efrem Kurtz (Jun 27 1995), Arline Lasater (May 22 1998), Gene Lasater (Mar 20 1999), Carl Orff (Mar 29 1982), Robert Shaw (Jan 25 1999), Lee Stevens (Nov 25 1999), Leopold Stokowski (Sept 13 1977), Don Strong (Sep 17 2002), Sir Michael Tippett (Jan 8 1998), Al Urbach (Apr 18 1998), Roger Wagner (Sep 17 1992), Jorge Velazco (Jul 2003), Elizabeth (Beth) Webb, Howard F. Webb.

In Conclusion: Looking Back and Looking Toward the Future

The Houston Symphony Chorus has had six Directors. But its sixty years is largely the story of the success of working under four – Urbach, Strong, Babikian, and Hausmann. What extraordinary stability – but what resilience! Change came periodically, and we blossomed again and again. Change will come, and we will survive and blossom again.

The HSC past has been bound to the Houston Symphony. Our fortunes have risen and dipped with HSO’s financial and artistic well being, as well as with the well being of all of HSO’s staff. It is vital for us to support HSO’s future.

The greatest joy of HSC is singing under HSO maestros. Over the past sixty years the lifeblood of HSC has come from seven maestros – Kurtz, Stokowski, Barbirolli, Foster, Comissiona, Eschenbach, and Graf. Change came, and we survived and blossomed again and again. We more than survived; in the hands of new maestros, old “warhorse” compositions became new. That is the blessing of good music. Change will come, and we will blossom again.

Over eighty-eight different guest conductors in our history have broadened the repertoire that HSC has performed. Recent highlights have come from conductors like Robert Shaw, Christopher Seaman, Nicholas McGegan, and Claus Peter Flor. As our skills and reputation improve, more guest conductors are happy to lead us – we are even finding friends who joyously return. Let us ask HSO to keep the doors open.

Accessible music like Pops, and its masters like Newt Wayland and Michael Krajewski, has broadened HSC’s appreciation of how to bring music to more people. Change will come, not only changes in leadership, but also changes in strategies for how good music is brought to more people. Let us welcome new people and new strategies.

From our problems HSC has learned the importance of communication in our organization, communication that involves multiple paths and multiple directions. Let us do our part in the communication process and also make it easier for others to communicate with us.

Our present Houston Symphony Chorus is built on the volunteer efforts of almost two hundred individuals. Each year, membership is refreshed – without recruitment HSC would have died. Let us continue to support recruiting and make HSC a welcome home for newcomers.

Our quality has depended on the conscious efforts of each member to produce the best possible vocal contribution to our joint sound. Let us renew our individual commitment to personal improvement, each striving to be the best “role model” possible.

Collectively our annual contribution of time to our organization and our sponsor is now about fifty thousand hours.[109] This ranks among the top volunteer contributions to any Houston Organization. The quality of our product ranks among the first rank of symphony choruses in the nation. As together we raise our voices, on the occasion of the celebration of our Sixtieth Anniversary, we hold our heads high.

The Mountain Peaks of the Houston Symphony Chorus Journey

The six all-time most performed works

(Readers should choose their own mountaintop performances in this first category.)

·         Händel’s Messiah

·         Orff’s Carmina Burana

·         Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

·         Verdi’s Requiem

·         Mozart’s Requiem

·         Brahms’ Requiem

Other works, 1947-Spring 1977

·         The first Independent Concert, April 23, 1947

·         The first concert with HSO, Beethoven’s Ninth, April 10, 1949

·         Recording Carmina Burana, led by Leopold Stokowski, April 1958

·         Opening of Jones Hall, Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe, led by Sir John Barbirolli, Oct. 3, 1966

·         Operas, concert performances led by Lawrence Foster

·         Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Britten’s War Requiem, both led by Robert Shaw

·         Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, led by Lawrence Foster

·         See the main text for other performances that undoubtedly belong here.

Other works, Fall 1977-Spring 1987

Other works, Fall 1987-Spring 1997 (50th Anniversary)

Other works, Fall 1997-Spring 2007

The Houston Symphony Chorus in Costume: A History[110]




1947 – 1953?

Blue academic robes monogrammed “HC”

Worn by both men and women

1953? – 1969

(April 1962 picture)

Women – Medium-length black skirt, medium- or long-sleeved white blouse: Men – dark business suit, dark tie

Men were first required to wear tuxedos for subscription concerts in the era of Stokowski (1955-61)

1969 – 1971

The black skirts were “standardized” in an “A-line” fashion during the Don Strong tenure, but still “chorus-made”


1971 – Aug. 1976

White dress, sleeveless, washable satin, with gold braid trim.


Sept. 1976 – July 1984

Red, floor-length gown, V-neck, ¾ sleeves, belted in front, free in back


Sept. 1984 – July 1989

A style and fabric change in the red gowns, precipitated by manufacturer’s discontinuance of fabric – Dottie Lytle headed up this committee

This style of red dress was still used through 1995 for Christmas Pops

Oct. 1989 – Aug. 1996

Black, floor-length skirt, white long-sleeved blouse

The color change to black and white was requested by Eschenbach. This first implementation met mixed reactions.

September 1996

Black dress, v-neck, translucent sleeves, with modifiable white trim, matching the “tuxedo” in spirit. Complementing accessories

Designed by Azam June DiGancci of Dallas

September (year?)

Men change to dark suits for Sunday afternoon concerts

To match HSO custom. A committee picked a ‘chorus tie’

September 2005

Change of complementing accessories


September 2006

60th-Anniversary gray silk scarf for women, handkerchief for men



The Houston Symphony Chorus Recorded

Houston Symphony and Chorus, unless noted otherwise


During the Houston Chorale directorship of Alfred Urbach:

·        1958 Carl Orff, Carmina Burana, Leopold Stokowski, conductor, LP, Seraphim (Capitol) Records S-60236, issued 1959. Re-released as CD, EMI Classics 67569 and EMI Classics 65207.


During the Houston Symphony Chorale directorship of Virginia Babikian:

·        1982 Claude Debussy’s Les Sirenes (Nocturnes), Sergiu Comissiona, conductor, 33 1/3 LP, re-released as tape, Vanguard 25015

·        1982 Maurice Ravel’s, Daphnis & Chloe Suite No 2, Sergiu Comissiona, conductor, tape, Vanguard CVA 25022.

·        1985 Tchaikowsky’s Waltz of the Snow-flakes, from Nutcracker, Sergiu Comissiona, conductor. re-release as ‘Tchaikowsky Waltzes,’ Pro-Arte Digital CD 251


During the Houston Symphony Chorus directorship of Charles Hausmann:

·        1993 – Johannes Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, Dunja Vejzovic MS, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor (With Brahms Symphony No.8). Virgin Classics, Inc., London.

·        1997 – Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, Robert Shaw, conductor. Recorded on the occasion of the opening of the Moores Opera House, University of Houston. Moores School Symphony Orchestra and Festival Chorus (which included HSC).

·        2000 – Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, Hans Graf, conductor, ©2001 Houston Symphony.

·        2002 – Houston Symphony Christmas Festival, Michael Krajewski, conductor, ©2003 Houston Symphony Media Productions.

·        2003 – Opera Highlights from Mexico City 2003, Carlos Spierer, conductor, Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería, Mexico City

·        2003 – Houston Symphony Glad Tidings, Michael Krajewski, conductor, ©2004 Houston Symphony Media Productions.

·        2004 – issued 2006, Mozart Requiem, Hans Graf, conductor, © Houston Symphony Media Productions, “Privately printed edition, not for commercial broadcast.”

·        2005 – Voices of the Symphony, Charles Hausmann, conductor, ©2005 Houston Symphony Media Productions.



The above does not include the broadcast tapes made of virtually every concert series by KUHF-FM Radio since the station’s reincarnation as a classical music station.

Works Cited

Published Books and Articles

Chasins, Abraham.  Leopold Stokowski: A Profile.  New York: Hawthorn Books, 1979.  [313 pp., ISBN 0-8015-4480-7]

Cunningham, Carl. Houston Symphony Chorus Celebrating 55 Years if Glorious Music. Houston Symphony Magazine, March 2003, p 27.

Opperby, Preben.  Leopold Stokowski.  New York: Midas Books / Hippocrene Books, 1982. [288 pp., ISBN 0-85936-253-1]

Reid, Charles.  John Barbirolli: A Biography. New York: Taplinger, 1971. [446 pp., ISBN 0-8008-4408-4]

Roussel, Herbert.  The Houston Symphony Orchestra, 1913-1971.  Austin:  U of Texas P, 1972. [247 pp., ISBN 0-292-73000-4]

HSC and Related Internal Documents and Serial Publications

_______ Board Manual, Houston Chorale, As Approved by the Board of Governors January 5, 1952. [cover + 8 pp]

Chorus Task Force Recommendations, prepared for Mr. Gideon Toeplitz, Executive Director of The Houston Symphony Orchestra. September 10, 1985. [58 pp.]

Evans, Sally I., Editor, Sing Out: Newsletter of the Houston Symphony Chorus, Nominal Quarterly publication, V1 No 1 Oct 1989 to V3 No 3 May 1992. Each issue generally 4 pp.

Graf, Sandy, and Lee Stevens. Houston Symphony Chorus History, 1987. [12 pp.] Privately printed at the occasion of HSC’s 40th Anniversary. A condensed version was distributed a year earlier, at the retirement banquet for Virginia Babikian and David Wehr.

_______ The Houston Chorale Chronicle. [3 pp.] An intended serial publication, known now only from an October 1955 issue.

_______ Houston Chorale Newsletter. Serial publication, issues 2 pp each, known only from issues of Nov 9, Nov 16 1965 and Jan 18 1966. Primary content was new member mini-biographies.

Nussmann, David G. A Golden Anniversary: Fifty Years of the Houston Symphony Chorus, 1997. [aggregate 82 pp.] A history distributed in 11 separates – a summary plus ten repertoire-oriented chapters.

Rehearsal Memorandum/Memo. These are documented as early as spring 1973, but may date back to the Chorale origins. Unsigned, most originate from the Chorus manager. The Chorus Archive has a relatively complete set only from 1975.

Situation Analysis, The Houston Symphony Chorale, Prepared for Mr. Gideon Toeplitz, Executive Director of The Houston Symphony Orchestra. July 10, 1984. 87 pp.

______ The Story of the Houston Chorale, ca 1948. [6 pp.] The earliest known promotional brochure. Dated by its inclusion of a page of the 1948-1949 Supporting Members.

Toeplitz, Gideon.  Letter to HSC. Feb. 19, 1985.

[1] The history is generally chronologic, but with some departures when it appears that treating a particular aspect can be served better by drawing it out for special consideration.

[2] But it also seems appropriate at times to refer to the Chorus as “we” or “us,” particularly when describing incidents after spring 1977 when this author joined HSC.

[3] This section is verbatim from Graf and Stevens, 1986.

[4] Charter member Jeanne Lutz became Mrs. Jeanne Urbach in September 1947. Henceforth it was “Al and Jeanne.” The last charter members to retire from active singing in the chorus were Howard F. and Elizabeth (Beth) Webb, who retired after the 1981-82 season.

[5] Until 1963 this was the primary site for HSO concerts. It was the building formerly occupying the site of the Music Hall, which in its turn has been demolished, replaced by the Hobby Center.

[6] Graf and Stevens, 2. HSC has celebrated the 50th and 60th anniversaries of The Chorale’s first rehearsal by re-singing this opening number. It was a very appropriate opener -- eight part a-cappella, showing off choral richness, a step above what most church choirs would have attempted, but sufficiently easy for the chorus to produce their first sounds with sonority and confidence.

[7] Herbert Roussel, The Houston Symphony Orchestra, 1913-1971, Austin:  U of Texas P, 1972 [247 pp., ISBN 0-292-73000-4], 130. A 1931 performance of some opera choruses drew personnel from a rehearsing Aida production. In 1944-45 Maestro Ernst Hoffman experimented with four staged opera productions – the effort wearing out all concerned. It is significant that the dust-jacket of Roussel’s book uses a photograph of the Orchestra in performance with the Houston Symphony Chorale!

[8] From concert advertisements in HSO subscription concert programs.

[9] The Houston Museum of Art has a photograph showing the few shivering concert attendees watching, shortly before the winds of a Texas blue norther called a halt to the event (HSO Archive).

[10] Roussel, 105, 116-117, 121.

[11] Ernst H. Hoffman led the Symphony 1936-1947: guest conductors filled the void until Efrem Kurtz arrived in fall 1948. See Roussel, Chapter 8 for the details of this rather fiery transition.

[12] The independent concerts, described above, filled in the Chorale’s seasons.

[13] The point can also be made that we were a part of a national change in orchestral repertoires and audience tastes.

[14] For more on Kurtz’s strong start and gradual decline see Roussel, Chapter 9.

[15] Graf and Stevens, 2.

[16] Roussel, 161. More recently, with increasingly demanding schedules in both Houston Grand Opera and HSC, and increasing professionalism in the HGO organization, it has been difficult for many years to serve both simultaneously, even if one has the voice. Nevertheless, there still are a few singers who bridge that gap. HSO was the orchestra for HGO performances until similar scheduling problems forced a similar separation in the 1990’s.

[17] Chorale members of this era who sang solos in Houston Symphony performances that included the Chorale are: William Alexander, Martha Bedford, James Fromme, Carol Gardner, Barbara Julif, Richard Palm, Jane Pittman, Kittie Skelton, Ruth Porter, Jack Waggoner, and Bonnie Sue Wooldridge. Jack Waggoner was particularly prominent, appearing in four separate HSO concert series. After the 1960’s, HSC ‘solos’ in HSO concerts has been limited to ‘bit parts’ and small ensembles, mostly in Pops concerts. Nevertheless, such participation has been a major highlight for each singer involved.

[18] The Houston Chronicle of April 5 2007 reported that the population of the Houston Metropolitan Area now exceeds 5.5 million.

[19] Locals relied on the venerable Houston Academy of Music for training.

[20] Because HSO programs did not contain chorus rosters until 1968, the only sources are the rosters printed in programs of the Independent concerts, plus a smattering of internal rosters.

[21] See the following discussion of use of the U of H Concert Chorale to bolster Chorale numbers, starting in 1960, in the section Singing with Sir John Barbirolli, 1961-68.

[22] The Houston Chorale Chronicle. [3 pp.] Known only from an October 1955 issue.

[23] In 1955, ticket prices are quoted as being 60¢ to $3. [Board Manual, Houston Chorale, As Approved by the Board of Governors January 5, 1952. [cover + 8 pp] p 6]

[24] For more on Fricsay’s meteoric rise and fall, see Roussel, Chapter 10.

[25] Roussel, 152, 1953.  See also Chapters 9, 10.

[26] The first of these three concerts, held in Ball High School, Galveston, is the source of one of the all-time best Chorale stories. The contracted Bass soloist declared he was ‘indisposed,’ and could not sing the Galveston concert. With Jeanne Urbach driving, Al Urbach sat in the back seat, coaching Chorale member Jack Waggoner in the Bass Solos: Waggoner did a splendid job. ‘Miraculously,’ the contracted Bass soloist ‘recovered’ sufficiently to sing the solos in Houston on the following two nights.

[27] Il Trionfo di Afrodite (the piece, not our performance of it) has been described as “A ponderous fiasco.” (Abraham Chasins, Leopold Stokowski: A Profile, New York: Hawthorn Books, 1979 [313 pp., ISBN 0-8015-4480-7], 219. Chapter 12 covers Stokowski in Houston.)

[28] Roussel, Chapter 11. The repertoire during the Stokowski period is a result of Stokowski’s being given free reign over programming (see Chasins, 220).

[29] Preben Opperby, Leopold Stokowski, New York: Midas Books / Hippocrene Books, 1982 [288 pp., ISBN 0-85936-253-1]. Chapter 13 describes Stokowski in Houston.

[30] The HSO 1957-58 season is the first in which works were regularly performed twice – a tribute both to Stokowski and HSO’s increasing draw and the rising Houston population.

[31] Virginia Babikian to Tony Sessions, personal communication.

[32] Some of the pain of that arrangement was expressed to this writer by Earle Jensen, HSC President during the ‘Stokowski’ years, and an HSC member for over 45 years.

[33] For example, a 1962(?) photograph of the Chorale shows only 47 women and 44 men. Another shows 47 women and only 26 men. The first HSO program-documented use of the U of H Concert Choir to bolster the Chorale was a Stokowski-directed Brahms’ Requiem in April 1960.

[34] HSC member Lee Stevens fondly recalls Sir John prefacing his instructions to the chorus with the words “In my Queen’s copy [of The Messiah].”

[35] Charles Reid, John Barbirolli: A Biography, New York: Taplinger, 1971 [446 pp., ISBN 0-8008-4408-4]. Sir John’s contract acknowledged that he divided his time equally between his Manchester post and Houston. Barbirolli’s Houston activities are described on pp. 363-78. His affirmation of the Houston Chorale as a “fine choir” is on page 364.

[36] Barbirolli Memorial Concerts, February 28, March 1, 2, 1971. HSC sang Stabat Mater and Te Deum from Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces, under the baton of Lawrence Foster.

[37] Houston Post, October 24 1965.

[38] Roussel, 211. Maestro Barbirolli was in the habit of losing grip on his baton, which would sail off. The concert master had a “quiver” of substitute batons, one of which would be handed up to Sir John at each mishap. In this opening concert the Chorale, seated in the orchestra pit below the maestro, was subjected to a veritable “hailstorm” of batons (--Lee Stevens, personal communication).

[39] Then as now, HSO’s Associate Director had a very large assignment of educational outreach concerts – a task performed by both Associate Director and Orchestra members that is little seen by the general public.

[40] David Fox, personal communication. David sang under Bedford at Austin College; then faced Bedford in his (David’s) audition for the Houston Chorale.

[41] In Bedford’s year these four were called ‘Section Leaders.’ The Following year, Don Strong’s first as HSC Director, they were called ‘Section Directors.’ In retrospectives they are sometimes called Section Coaches, to make clear they are different from the elected Section Leaders, primarily handling non-musical matters that developed by 1973.

[42] The Christmas Concert was to have been conducted by Wayne Bedford himself. But as rehearsing began, Houston Symphony Orchestra members showed their strong prejudice against a ‘novice’s’ conducting the all-orchestral Nutcracker Suite – and to the Orchestra’s disgrace, demonstrated those feelings in front of HSC. Clyde Roller was hastily called to conduct Nutcracker. Bedford continued to conduct all of the concert numbers that had Chorale participation. All correspondents are firm in stating that this rather shameful orchestral behavior should not reflect negatively on Bedford’s leadership of HSC – he had been doing well and continued to do well the entire season.

[43] Bedford’s massively attended memorial service was held June 1 1969. There is a program in the Chorus Archive.

[44] What is not clear in retrospect is whether Symphony Management accepted the results of the ballot without question or merely used the ballot results as an advisory. In either case it is a good sign that members were consulted as a part of the process.

[45] Houston Symphony Chorale roster, 1969-1970.

[46] A concrete example: There were forty-one new members in Fall 1973 – a quarter of HSC! [HSC Rehearsal Memorandum #1, Sept 11 1973.]

[47] By the following year there were 180 singers, with 97 of them being men! Keeping the roster of women numerically constant increased the competition for women’s slots: by 1977-78 the standards for admitting a new Soprano or Alto significantly exceeded the standards for admitting a new male. In 1983 the percentages of singers with an undergraduate degree in music were: Sopranos 60%, Altos 47%, Tenors 13%, bases 0%.  Similar differences persist to this day, though they have not been quantified.

[48] For these seasons, concerts with more popular appeal were the Verdi Requiem and the Mahler Second Symphony, both conducted by maestro emeritus Barbirolli.

[49] For a full discussion of the experiment with Previn, which was more complicated than the summary here can convey, see Roussel, Chapter 15.

[50] Translation: “Beware of the plague! Thebes is dying of the plague!”

[51] The Chorus Archive contains otherwise-unattached music that could have been for a 1972 Christmas concert, but neither the HSC nor the HSO archive has any record that a 1972 Christmas performance took place.

[52] HSO Executive Director Gideon Toeplitz charged his staff, Gisèle Ben-Dor, Tom Fay, Doug Merilatt, Charles Hausmann and Niklaus Wyss with coming up with a real SHOW – a Christmas drama that, with modifications, could draw customers year after year. Scripts were by Kate Pogue. They were indeed new dramas – but some loyal patrons missed the old format.

[53] At their recent Christmas Parties Conoco-Phillips state 1969 was the first annual Conoco Christmas party, but 1973 is the earliest contract with HSO in the Conoco archives.

[54] Houston Post, Jan 8 1986. Long-term HSC member Arthur Heitzman described this concert and Shaw in Sing Out: Newsletter of the Houston Symphony Chorus, V 3 No 2, December 1991, p 4.

[55] Carl Cunningham, Houston Post, about June 6 1971.

[56] Roger Wagner has never been the chorus favorite. His style and that of HSC did not mix well.

[57] The orchestra members were HSO members, but participating as volunteer individuals. The Chorus Archive documents a continuing degree of Chorale independence – Chorus Manager Sandy Graf negotiated with the musicians’ union directly for these volunteer services.

[58] This writer will treasure forever a Messiah performance at Westbury Baptist Church, in which he sang six feet from first-chair cellist Shirley Trepel, relishing her energy, her mastery of every note, her expression of every nuance.

[59] Notable was the continuing service of Tom Avinger, first noted as a section coach in fall 1968.

[60] Houston Chronicle, Charles Ward, May 22 1983. Carl Cunningham of the Post (May 22) was more reserved.

[61] W. L. Taitte, in Texas Monthly (July 1983 pp 142, 144). In his compared performances of Belshazzar’s Feast in Dallas and Houston, Houston won handily.

[62] Houston Post, Jan 8 1986. Reviewer Carl Cunningham called it “one of those performances that brings out all your goosebumps and makes your har stand on end (Houston Post, about Oct 15). Charles ward was equally complimentary (Houston Chronicle, about Oct 15).

[63] This writer can say that through this concert series he saw Disney’s animation of Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice eight times, and appreciated its artistry more each time it ran.

[64] This editor uses ‘boisterous’ because the drama of Berlioz frequently calls for that emotion. In one case Comissiona asked us to prepare both a standard and a ‘boisterous’ rendition of a passage – and he opted for the standard.

[65] The crown of the communication gap is the year in which a Comissiona  request switched the chorus from Roman Latin to Germanic Latin for Carmina Burana only three weeks from the concerts.

[66] The cantors would be unable to hear the Friday evening performance because of obligations to their own congregations.

[67] The work brings us readily into the gruesome pain of Cabeza De Vaca’s shipwrecked 1527 expedition to Florida, but never lifts us to understand “the power within us” that enabled four of the four hundred to survive the walk to Mexico. It is unrelentingly modern, with no redeeming melodies. HSO’s scheduled two performances were cut to one because of lagging ticket sales, angering Schuller. Initially written and performed seventeen years before, the work probably has not been performed since.

[68] The summer of 1982 was futher complicated by the obligation to perform Beethoven’s Ninth on the week end of September 12, HSO’s opening concert series. During that summer Virginia scheduled three all-day rehearsals at Columbia Lakes Conference Center. All told, between June 26 and September 11 there were 21 regular rehearsals plus the three all-day rehearsals! In reality, HSC had no summer break.

[69] HSO scheduled HSC for a performance series on the weekend immediately following Thanksgiving. When the HSC President went to HSO Management in protest, explaining the problem it created for many HSC families, he was told in no uncertain terms that we had to take it or leave. HSO Management’s reaction may have been colored by his knowledge that another HSC obligation had already been scheduled for the weekend after Thanksgiving of the following year! Within five years it had been done four times. To the chorus, that was insult upon injury.

[70] Toeplitz is NOT the manager of the previous footnote.

[71] Situation Analysis, The Houston Symphony Chorale, Prepared for Mr. Gideon Toeplitz, Executive Director of The Houston Symphony Orchestra, July 10, 1984, 87 pp. The Situation Analysis was well received.

[72] Letter from Gideon Toeplitz to HSC, Feb. 19, 1985. A true chorus organization would not be restored until Charles Hausmann’s administration, when its organization, powers and duties were defined on terms acceptable to HSO administration. Chorus Task Force Recommendations, prepared for Mr. Gideon Toeplitz, Executive Director of The Houston Symphony Orchestra, September 10, 1985, 58 pp.

[73] Situation Analysis, 28-31.

[74] This is a matter of expectation. On occasion, HSC still sits while the Orchestra rehearses. But in virtually every recent case, HSC has been told in advance, and told why this is occurring.

[75] HSO management tied this unilateral step to making our name similar to names of choruses like the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Coming as the two new directors arrived (Polichek and Hausmann, see the following main text) most of us took it as HSO management’s wanting to make a clean separation from the old organization and its recent problems.

[76] The Galveston concerts were a Verdi Requiem conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham in Ball H. S. Auditorium on April 3, 1955, and three concerts in the Galveston Opera House (Messiahs in 1991-92 and a Christmas Pops in 1992). The 1992 concerts were marketing failures, ending that experiment.

[77] Camaraderie despite handicaps. One of the Corpus Christi trips had to be made in yellow school buses because of a bus drivers’ strike!

[78] The choice of Polochick was clearly an action of Maestro Comissiona, whose previous post had been maestro of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Comissiona had immense respect for the talented Polochick and the choruses he had nurtured in that city and would have loved to lure Polochick permanently to Houston.

[79] Hausmann, Charles S., Marsh, Hunter C., Miller, Samuel D., and Roe, Betty G., World of Choral Music, 1988, Lexington MA, Silver, Burdett & Ginn, Inc., [383 pp, ISBN 0-382-07790-3]. This is a song book for High School and Junior College level choirs. There is a companion volume for the teacher. Both are in their second editions.

[80] Virginia Babikian to David Nussmann, spoken without prompting on two private occasions prior to 1985. Babikian particularly lamented the decline of the ensemble sound of her beloved sopranos.

[81] The quantitative record: Roster count, fall 1983 - 166, fall 1984 - 163, fall 1985 (Babikian’s last) - 182, fall 1986 (Policheck-Hausmann start) - 154, spring 1987 - 151, fall 1987 - 199. Thus Hausmann began with a chorus reduced by a net 18%. The increase of 48 singers in fall 1987 (the response to Comissiona’s ‘marching orders’) meant that the group started that season with a minimum of 24% new voices. HSC had not experienced that much instant change since 1973.

[82] The best example: The instant bonding of the 2007 European Tour group into an ensemble is oceans apart from the struggle to get ensemble singing in the 1992 European Tour group.

[83] The statistics for Hausmann’s preparing HSC for HSO concerts are similar – 462 out of a total of 800 concerts for HSO, also 58%. The percentage is high because, as noted in this history, HSO only gradually increased its use of HSC and only gradually progressed from the standard one through two to three concerts per work.

[84] If all of her service is included, Virginia Babikian’s 17 years will rank just behind Urbach and Hausmann. A hidden loyalist staff person is Tom Avinger. First documented as a Strong Section Coach in fall 1968, he remained in some ‘masthead’ capacity through spring 1982, a total of 14 seasons. Singing in Houston from at least 1961, his leadership years could be greater. (The Chorus archive does not have rosters 1962-67.)

[85] Although there was only a short time gap between HSC’s last concert with Comissiona (April 1988) and the first with successor Eschenbach (February 1989), the “interregnum” was in effect longer, because prior engagements delayed Eschenbach’s full participation in conducting and programming.

[86] Carl Cunningham, Houston Post, Nov 12 1988; Charles Ward, Houston Chronicle, similar date.

[87] HSC had previously performed Carmina with the Ballet –  in February 1974, with Charles Rosenkrans directing. In fall 2006 the Ballet again performed Carmina with chorus. Some of our HSC members sang, but the singing was under the auspices of Houston Masterworks Chorus.

[88] Page was a last-minute substitute for Lawrence Foster, who had a shoulder injury. Page is the father of HSO’s principal harpist Paula Page.

[89] We thank Roger Cutler for sharing the memories of this paragraph.

[90] Evans Sally I., Ed., Sing Out: Newsletter of the Houston Symphony Chorus, V 3 No 3, May 1992, p 1.

[91] Neither this Gurrelieder performance directed by Eschenbach nor the previous Gurrelieder performance directed by  Commissiona in 1982 were particularly satisfying for choristers. This writer feels that most of  the fault lies with the composer: the only truly great moments in the music are the Sprechstimme of the baritone soloist.

[92] Others are involved. Charles Hausmann expresses the role of the Chorus Director in program planning as that of placing in front of the planners a full plate of the best choral works that would be appropriate for the coming years, particularly, works not yet done before or not done recently.

[93] HSC and its concert conductors had been struggling with the cacophony of metal chairs since the origin of the Chorus.

[94] Count singing, exercises in pitch control, precision of cutoffs, unified sound.

[95] Roussel. 90-96.

[96] Or near the fourth of July if the calendar makes it appropriate.

[97] Roger Cutler, personal communication.

[98] The tapes of the live Carmina concerts were turned into a commercial CD.

[99] Gone are problems with communicating desires prior to “piano rehearsals.” In 2005-07 Graf has been relying on Hausmann for judgment about balance between Chorus and Orchestra.

[100] There are three more series and nine more encounters with Graf next season (2007-08). Our “Graf encounter” rate is heavier than the rate under Eschenbach.

[101] HSC preparation has almost always included the opportunity to view the entire movie.

[102] Four generations of HSC have sung the War Requiem, and each rates it as a mountain top experience. We have been fortunate in its conductors. But it is also obvious that the work itself is the mountain top. Singers tend to nominate their first exposure as ‘the best.’

[103] The Kaddish performances came a week from performances of Carmina Burana – one of the heaviest preparation assignments ever.

[104] This reliance on the chorus for basics has been typical of all Pops concerts and Pops conductors, who are busy with the orchestra.

[105] That pains some of our members, who are still fond of Broadway songs that were introduced long before their own births.

[106] Between HSC trips Hausmann has also led several University of Houston groups to perform with the Orquestra Sinfonica de Mineria.

[107] Hickox knew us from his conducting an HSO Messiah in 1986 (see Hallelujah! Singing Messiah section).

[108] Actual CD costs were about twice the HSC Endowment contribution; HSO in essence contributed a “bridge loan.” HSO personnel managed the recording process. The preparatory concert was an official HSO event. The CD is an official HSO product. It continues to be marketed by HSO.

[109] Were we all to itemize deductions we would claim an aggregate $25,000. Of course, this does not include dollar value of our time.

[110] The writer thanks Earle Jensen, Orchard Corl, and Lee Stevens for help in compiling these descriptions.


o o o -> -> o