(The following sketch appeared in the Program for the
40th Anniversary Celebration in 1986)
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CHORALE
"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 which 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 Houston music critic, describes the young man who faced him across a Houston Post desk one late summer day in 1946. Alfred F. 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 these difficult years. This wartime experience led Urbach to believe strongly in the value of music as a unifier and peacemaking force in human relations.
In his own words, "Common ground for the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, the young and old, the meek and 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," Urbach said to Roussel, "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 in the Rice Hotel, for the first auditions. It took two months to get 30 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 75 and membership was closed to prepare for the "first annual concert".
HOUSTON CHORALE GOES BEFORE PUBLIC TONIGHT IN MUSIC HALL
CONCERT read the Houston Post on the morning of April 23, 1947.
(Other headlines that morning concerned the tragic explosion of
the French SS Grandcamp in Texas City several days earlier.) The
day after the concert, Chorale members were gratified to read
unanimous critical plaudits for the group's high purpose and musicianship.
One typical comment was Eleanor Wakefield's opening
lead in the Chronicle: "The new Houston Chorale exhibited results of months of work in rehearsals in a first performance at the Music Hall Wednesday night--a concert of a capella melody which sets it up as Houston's foremost singing organization.
It is interesting to note that the very first song the Chorale performed in public was a choral motet by Lundquist called "Now that the Sun is Beaming Bright"...this decidedly upbeat spirit was to characterize the Chorale for many years to come.
Tuesday night was always rehearsal night. It began early for Al
Urbach, perhaps with a simple supper at Kelly's with a few Chorale
singers. (One charter member who often came along was a young
alto listed in the first concert program as Jeanne Lutz. In September,
1947, she became Mrs. Urbach and thereafter, anything
that mattered to the Chorale was the joint concern of 'Al and Jeanne'.
Since the Urbachs owned no car in those postwar days, the journey to rehearsal was by bus. Their "luggage" was a blue (and heavy!) foot-locker which held all the Chorale records. Their destination was the old yellow-brick City Auditorium, which stood where Jones Hall is today. It was to be the Chorale's home for 16 years.
The evening's business began, as ever, with setting up chairs. One by one the singers would arrive, go through the lobby and up the wide, winding stairs to the rehearsal room. Formerly used as a banquet hall, the room was three stories high. Gilded cherubim looked down from the ornate ceiling and the walls, with the original gas fixtures still in place, boasted beautiful paintings. The curtains were of a rich red velvet.
Unfortunately, what the hall offered in decorative splendor and good acoustics was not matched by its heating and cooling systems. The room was warmed in winter by extension heaters (an open flame with an asbestos shield behind it) and "cooled" by a few stand-up fans. Later on, conditions improved with the installation of window units for air-conditioning. Nonetheless, a poignant rehearsal note from Al reads: "Sure hope we get some cooler weather soon. Awful hard to sing in an oven. Maybe, one day...."
In the meantime, everyone worked feverishly to make the Chorale a success. Members pitched in and bought themselves concert robes: bright blue academic gowns monogrammed with 'H.C.' in gold, with salmon-colored collars. Al cashed in his own war bonds to buy the Chorale's first piano and some music. He was reimbursed later by the Symphony, but at first the Chorale had to support itself-- either through its concert receipts or through public donation.
Giving a concert was hard work for everybody. It meant printing tickets, programs and posters, renting a hall, hiring an orchestra or guest conductor, if needed. The chorus also had to pay a small army of stagehands, ushers, piano movers and other helpers. Anything the Chorale members could do themselves, they did-- from building risers to decorating Christmas trees for the Coliseum stage.
The one job that was singled out for universal groans was selling tickets. To spur sales, prizes donated by local merchants were awarded to those who sold the most tickets to each concert. But sometimes the competition for public attention was stiff.
One frantic Board meeting was called in April of 1954 "because of the unfortunate situation of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis coming to Houston" on the very night the Chorale was giving its Spring concert. The comedians, at the height of their fame, captured the audiences that night.
With all this practice, everybody got pretty good at selling tickets. More cheerful Board records show that for the 1953 Christmas concert, 120 members sold 2,800 tickets! Even so, nobody liked it much.
Happily, the heavy demands of fund-raising diminished over the years as the Houston Symphony Society assumed more and more responsibility for the Chorale's operation.
Artistic affiliation with the orchestra had begun early. Miss Ima Hogg, then president of the Society, heard the chorus in rehearsal before its first concert in 1947. For years after that, the entry 'Corsage for Miss Ima' is seen among Chorale concert disbursements as a small recognition of her interest in the group.
In April, 1949, only two and a half years after its formation, the Chorale proudly sang its first work, the Beethoven Ninth, with the orchestra under Efrem Kurtz. Since that time, the group has been privileged to sing the masterpieces of the choral repertoire under some of the world's most brilliant conductors. (A list of performances follows.)
As the chorus did more and more work on a regular basis with the orchestra, the Society agreed to provide salaries for the conductor and accompanist and to buy necessary music, among other things. Thus, Al and Jeanne saw the realization of a dream. The Chorale had become what it remains to this day-- the official chorus of the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
Let no one imagine that this prestigious position shielded the chorus from life's wilder moments.
To begin with, the City Auditorium was the early home, not only of the Symphony and the Chorale, but also of the wrestling matches! This meant reaching rehearsal through a lobby filled with wrestling fans buying tickets at the box office. Stokowski, in particular, was fascinated by this colorful crew. (Sometimes a fist-fight out on the sidewalk was included in the pre-rehearsal excitement.) What followed, of course, was a rehearsal punctuated by the wild cheering and outraged screams of the uninhibited spectators downstairs.
With the proposed demolition of the City Auditorium to make way for Jones Hall, the Chorale folded its chairs and moved to new quarters in the Chamber of Commerce Building in September, 1963. The rehearsal rooms there were never very fancy, but they afforded the chorus a much-appreciated temporary home for the next three years.
The biggest changes came in the 1966-67 season, the chorus' 20th anniversary. There was the long-awaited opening of Jones Hall with the Chorale singing for both the dedication and opening concert under Sir John Barbirolli. Thee was glamour and glitter to spare on these occasions: a milestone for all Houston. Not the least of the new benefits, to the singers, at least, was a large professional room in which to rehearse. Added bonus: no more rickety folding chairs!
Then, on April 11, 1967, Al announced his plans to leave Houston permanently and move to Western Colorado. His Symphony duties (he had resigned as cellist in 1955 to take on administrative work) were becoming increasingly heavy. Chorale concerns added to the pressure. Everyone at rehearsal that night knew what a difficult decision the Urbachs had made. No rhetoric could adequately cover the situation when it came time to say good-bye. But the obvious historical fact remains true today: the first 20 years belong to Al and Jeanne.
The Chorale was very fortunate in its selection of a new leader,
The next director of the chorus was an old friend. As a long time Chorale member and assistant conductor, Wayne Bedford was well known for his musical talents; his warmth and his immense energy. Early in that 1968-69 season, Wayne told the chorus, "I covet the idea that this Chorale will be the finest singing organization in the South."
No one doubted the sincerity of his dedication to that goal. So it was with a special sense of loss that members learned of Wayne's fatal heart attack only a few days after the final rehearsal in June, 1969. It seemed that every singer in town was at Wayne's funeral. The unforgettable fervor of the singing that day was witness to his exceptional qualities as a man and as a musician.
The selection of Donald Strong as director was soon announced.
The chorus has always been fortunate in its leadership, and with
Don no one needed to be told that we had gotten ourselves an outstanding
man. His talent and dedication were obvious from the beginning.
He recognized that, to handle the increasingly complex
affairs of the Chorale, a professional staff was needed. This was set up.
1971 was the year the chorus lived at Jones Hall. There were four major concerts as well as two smaller programs. The singers responded with magnificent generosity under a schedule that would have collapsed most choruses. It was also a year overshadowed by news of the death of a dear friend, Sir John Barbirolli. Sir John had championed the chorus for years, and it was hard to realize that his very welcome visits would never take place again.
All of the year's hard work came to a triumphant climax in June-- doing Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" under the direction of Robert Shaw. There were five days of unforgettable rehearsals with Mr. Shaw and a concert that had the critics and audience raving. The headline in the Houston Post the next morning read, SYMPHONY CHORALE SUBLIME. Maybe it was just the champagne at the reception after the concert, but that's just how it felt.
The Chorale celebrated its 25th birthday learning Russian for the
new Symphony conductor-in-chief Lawrence Foster's production of
Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky". Complete with film excerpts from
the movie, it was a highly acclaimed production. Mr. Foster was
very supportive of the chorale throughout his tenure and graciously
conducted our first two "Sings" in 1974 and 1975. This
was a first for Houston and Texas-- a sing-along complete with a major conductor and orchestra, and anyone could join us-- AND THEY CAME!!! Old friend Clyde Roller conducted the "Sing" in our city, as well as great fun, the "Sing" concept was tops.
Another significant 'first' of this period was the series of workshops beginning in 1974 with Robert Shaw. This was truly a regional event, with people coming from all surrounding states and as far away as Kansas, New Mexico and South Dakota. In 1975 we had Roger Wagner and in 1976, Elmer Isler.
Don Strong's resignation after 8 years of glorious music making, led to the appointment of Virginia Babikian as our new director. When the call came to assume the role of director, Virginia had already served 8 years as vocal coach and assistant conductor. Her selection was met with great support from the membership, and her understanding of the voice, splendid musicianship and warmth of personality led to more years of wonderful experiences for the Chorale.
In 1980 we welcomed Sergiu Comissiona to Houston and began the Comissiona years with our first-ever performance of the Berlioz "Requiem". Highlights of this period include composers conducting their own work, such as Krzystof Penderecki-- "Psalms of David" and Sir Michael Tippett-- "A Child of Our Time".
And who can forget our first TV appearance with the orchestra, the Houston Symphony Olympics, with such notable guest conductors as Marvin Zindler, Earl Campbell, and-- A. J. Foyt?????
During this period our service to the Symphony for the summer festivals increased enormously. We became a year-round chorus in every sense with corresponding extra work and time demands. One of the rewards of summer work was the presence of Leonard Bernstein in the wings as we sang his "Chichester Psalms" in May, 1983, and F. Murray Abraham as 'Salieri' in a delightful Mozart program in July 1985.
Out of town opportunities also appeared, with the women of the Chorale traveling to San Antonio with the orchestra in May of 1984. In May of 1986 the entire chorus went to College Station to sing "Carmina Burana" with the Brazos Valley Symphony. These trips were a special treat for the membership and were greatly enjoyed.
With the resignation of Virginia in 1986, Edward Polochick and Charles Hausmann were chosen as co-directors. The name was changed to 'Houston Symphony Chorus' and we entered yet another phase of our collective musical life.
As Al Urbach said 40 years ago, "Music is common ground for all of us, and brings great humanitarian benefits not just to the singer, but the listener as well."
We look forward to the next 40 WITH GREAT EXPECTATIONS!
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