FOUNDED BY ARTISTIC DIRECTOR Robert Simpson in 1996, help the Houston Chamber Choir has grown to be one of Houston’s cultural gems. Executive director Becky Tobin is the one-woman show behind the scenes.
A+C Editor NANCY WOZNY visited with Tobin to get an inside view of her life running the city’s only professional choir.
A+C: Did you ever imagine you would end up as the executive director of a major arts institution when you were in music school?
BECKY TOBIN: Actually, yes I did. I was lucky to have known what I wanted to do in high school, and to be doing that today. I loved playing the clarinet, but wasn’t sure I was up for a career as a professional musician. One of my teachers encouraged me to stay in music, but behind the scenes on the administrative side. I was immediately intrigued, and have been on that path ever since.
A+C: Can you talk about that transition from performing to working behind the scenes?
BECKY TOBIN: Quite honestly, working behind the scenes felt natural to me from the very beginning. I firmly believe that people with an arts background make the best arts administrators; as a musician, I understand the nuances and challenges that arise when presenting live music, and that knowledge has helped me understand more completely my administrative role. I often respond emotionally during concerts because it triggers a memory from my performing days, or I might hear a really awesome clarinet solo that I wish I were playing. Music overwhelms me in the most fantastic way, and even though I watch from the sidelines, I still feel a great sense of pride and accomplishment in the work I do.
A+C: What attracted you to choral music?
BECKY TOBIN: Truthfully, I never expected that I would leave the orchestra industry. But, one of my career goals was to become an executive director of an arts organization, and the opportunity to become the executive director of a group as stellar as the Houston Chamber Choir was one I could not pass up. With some helpful networking through friends of friends, I learned of the Houston Chamber Choir executive director position opening in June 2010. I thank my lucky stars everyday for that great timing.
A+C: Talk about your relationship with the artistic director Robert Simpson. How do the two of you work together?
BECKY TOBIN: We work on opposite ends of the spectrum, but also need to be tuned in to what the other is doing. Bob is one of the most gifted artistic directors I’ve ever worked with. He has an excellent ability to create beautiful, intellectual and collaborative concerts while making the music accessible to diverse audiences. I’ve got my eye on the books while Bob has his eye on the scores, and we work together to understand the bigger picture of the Houston Chamber Choir — where it has been, where it is now, and where it is headed.
A+C: How does the Chamber Choir fit into the ecology of the choral music in Houston?
BECKY TOBIN: Bob founded the Chamber Choir on the premise that professional singers in a choral setting should be compensated for their talent and training just as instrumentalists in an orchestra are. This was a novel concept then, and even today there are only a handful of truly professional choirs around the United States. Yet, for 16 years, the Chamber Choir has attracted the finest singers in our region and compensated them for every minute of rehearsal and performance. This is a huge game-changer for the choral art. With the enormous capabilities of these musicians, Bob has forged an ensemble that is now counted among the finest professional ensembles in the country. Recording and touring are important elements of our work. We just completed the world premiere recording of a long forgotten masterpiece from the Italian Baroque, for example. And in April, we will travel to the northeast for concerts in New York City and Yale University.
A+C: The Chamber Choir is known for its collaborative events, this month with River Oaks Chamber Orchestra. Talk about building bridges in the community that lead to successful joint efforts like the “Messiah for Kids” and others.
BECKY TOBIN: Houston Chamber Choir has worked with many fellow organizations, including River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO), Da Camera of Houston and Ars Lyrica, just to name a few. Houston has many talented performing groups; when you join forces you get something really special that benefits everyone — much like “Messiah for Kids!” coming up on December 3rd. Sometimes the smallest sparks catch fire, like when Alecia Lawyer of ROCO brainstormed with us about a kid-friendly, family-oriented version of Handel’s “Messiah.” We are very excited to present, in collaboration with ROCO, the world premiere of “Messiah for Kids!” to the Houston community. That performance will be followed by our full-length performance with ROCO of “Magnificat”and “Messiah” featuring the Christmas portion of Handel’s “Messiah” later in the evening. In February, we are proud to perform again with Da Camera of Houston to recreate a performance of Schubert’s works given in the last year of the composer’s life. Collaborations such as these are a blast for the performers and the audience alike, and create an almostaudible buzz in the community.
A+C: What do you take with you from your time as a fellow at the Kennedy Center?
BECKY TOBIN: There’s no question in my mind that I owe my career as it stands today to the Kennedy Center’s internship program. The five months I spent working as an operations intern for the National Symphony was a unique opportunity to learn the essentials of concert production, ensemble touring and orchestra management from some of the best people in the business. My time at the Kennedy Center solidified my desire to embark on this career path, and laid the foundation that ultimately led me to my first position at a symphony orchestra.
A+C: What are the challenges of running a one-woman shop?
BECKY TOBIN: One of the things I love is the chance to have my hands in every aspect of the organization. Since my background is primarily in operations and artistic administration, I really love the opportunity to dig deep into finance, marketing and fundraising. The downside of having to manage it all from the bookkeeping to the grant writing to the advertising is finding the time to fit it all into the schedule. I’ve learned there are times when I have to say to myself “it’s time to go home” because being the only full-time person means the organization depends on my ability to deliver every day (not just today).
A+C: What don’t we know about you and would be surprised to find out?
BECKY TOBIN: I still find time to play my clarinet. Last year, I participated in ROCO’s Pro-Am series in a woodwind quintet; and this year I’ve gone back to my true love — that is, orchestra — as the principal clarinetist for the Texas Medical Center Orchestra (about 20 percent of the orchestra is made up of non-medical professionals like me). And, one of my favorite things to do is sprint triathlons. I admit I don’t have that running thing down yet, but I’m a pretty good swimmer.
December 3, 11 a.m.
Messiah for Kids with River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO)
December 3, 7:30 p.m.
Magnificat and Messiah with ROCO
January 29, 4 p.m.
Hear the Future 13th Annual Invitational School Choral Festival
February 4, 8 p.m.
Vienna 1828: Schubert’s Invitation Concert Presented by Da Camera of Houston