Houston Chamber Choir’s Springtime: Stravinsky to Brubeck to Buller

The Houston Chamber Choir’s annual showcase of high school choirs was mere days away, and artistic director Robert Simpson was making the rounds of the featured schools to touch base. Meanwhile, the last details of the chamber choir’s remaining programs of the season had to be nailed down, as did plans for next season—the choir’s thirtieth anniversary. All that came on top of Simpson’s day job as canon of music at downtown Houston’s Christ Church Cathedral.

“Things are happening fast, but that’s the way I like it,” the ever-upbeat Simpson said. “We’re working hard to get things going.” (Simpson and the choir just announced that he’ll step down as artistic director at the end of the 2024-25 season, and the University of Houston’s Betsy Cook Weber will take charge.)

The details are in place for the chamber choir’s next concert, which features the world premiere of Mass in Exile, by Houstonian Mark Buller (March 9). This is the choir’s second commission for Buller, who also has created works for Houston Grand Opera, ROCO, Apollo Chamber Players and—in the outside world—the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The choir came back to Buller, Simpson said, because of his “unique voice.”

“He draws on the traditional elements of tonal music, but with a very original result,” Simpson said. “His music speaks directly to the listener, even on first hearing. It has a sense of originality without gimmicks that is very appealing to me.”

In Mass in Exile, Buller and librettist Leah Lax draw on their own personal experiences. The exile they explore is spiritual, not geographical.

“Both of them came out of very restrictive religious environments,” Simpson explained. “Mark grew up in a severe Christian sect, and Leah grew up in a strict Hasidic Jewish community. They both broke free. But in the process, they felt in exile. They felt as if they were homeless.” The two “fought to find God on their own terms,” and both ultimately succeeded, finding “strengths and points of comfort in their own religious lives. They have the feelings they had longed for in the past.”

Mass in Exile—scored for baritone soloist, guitar, strings and choir—evokes the pair’s spiritual journeys. Buller’s music, Simpson said, draws on “a kaleidoscopic approach to melody and harmony.”

The work opens with an outcry—”almost a shriek by the choir at fortissimo level,” Simpson said, and he quoted some of the words: “Have mercy! Hear the children. Where, oh where, is home?” As the journey unfolds, a love song harkens back to the biblical Song of Solomon. “Mark sets those with a hymnlike simplicity that becomes almost mesmerizing in its directness,” Simpson said.

While Mass in Exile doesn’t employ the text of the Catholic mass, Simpson said, it alludes to the mass in movement headings such as “Credo in Exile” and “Peaceable Kingdom Gloria.” And some movements begin with the guitar quoting medieval chants. “It’s quite haunting, the way he weaves that into the sound of the strings and choir,” Simpson added.

The choir will round out the program with two other works of Buller’s. Overboard, premiered by Houston Grand Opera in 2017, looks back to the loss of the warship USS Houston in battle in World War II. The Passion of St. Cecilia, the chamber choir’s first Buller commission, salutes the patron saint of music.

Simpson will give the podium to Weber, UH’s director of choral activities—and the Houston Chamber Choir’s future leader—for a concert spotlighting composers who have spent at least part of their lives in California (April 27). The list will range from 20th-century trailblazers Igor Stravinsky and John Cage to today’s Morten Lauridsen and Reena Esmail.

“Native Houstonian and Texan that I am, it is difficult for me to give other states much credit,” Weber quipped via email. “Still, one simply cannot ignore the contributions of Californian composers to the choral art.”

Stravinsky, who fled Europe’s World War II upheavals by moving to Los Angeles, composed his Mass for choir and 10 winds over a span of several years in the 1940s. The result is a “fascinating presentation of historic, sacred texts,” Weber said. She set it against the backdrop of Stravinsky’s better-known Symphony of Psalms.

“The Mass is austere and almost entirely reserved.  It offers a complete contrast to the Symphony of Psalms, which is emotional, hyperbolic, bi-polar,” Weber said. The Mass’ “Gloria” movement is sometimes chant-like, sometimes dance-like. In keeping with tradition, Stravinsky sets the text-heavy “Credo” homophonically, moving through the words quickly. In the “Sanctus,” the vocal and instrumental lines evoke the wafting of incense. “I’m crazy about the Mass,” Weber added, “and am really eager to give it a go.”

The chamber choir’s season will end with a tribute to jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck (June 1).  Brubeck, who died in 2012, came to Houston for a 2006 concert with the choir.

“He was in his 80s at that point, but when he sat down to play the piano, he was (seemingly) 28 again–in his prime,” Simpson recalled. “His youth just shone through.”

For all Brubeck’s stature as a jazz musician, his music for choir “is not choral jazz,” Simpson said. “It’s a different idiom altogether—much more classical-oriented.”

“He had something important to say,” Simpson continued. “He and his wife would collaborate—she would write the text. …. In almost every instance, there was an underlying message. They were both very spiritual, and so they had a strong feeling for the way the divine works in this world. And they had equal passion for social justice.”

Simpson cited a piece in store for the coming concert: Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been a Democrat Or Republican? The title alludes to Red Scare inquisitions of the 1950s. But the music resonates today, Simpson said, by “poking fun at the social dangers of labels, and of trying to make people fit into predetermined ways of thinking that he found—and many of us find—abhorrent. That was one of his greatest legacies: his sense of social justice and equality.”

In collaboration with Brubeck’s sons Dan and Chris Brubeck—who will perform in the concert—the choir will record its share of the program, and more recordings of the jazz icon’s works will follow. Simpson again thought back to Brubeck. “He said, ‘After all is said and done, the thing I’m most proud of is my choral music,’” Simpson recalled. “His work as a composer was what he most wanted to be remembered for. … We anticipate that this will be a multi-year project. We’ll continue to make more of his choral music available to the world.”

Plans for the 30th-anniversary season aren’t settled enough to announce, Simpson said. But he already takes pleasure in the approaching milestone.

Simpson founded the choir “with the determination that when the cultural profile of Houston is described, with a major symphony, major opera and theater and ballet, that professional choral music would be part of that mix,” he said. “It has been very soul-satisfying, after 30 years, to say we have become a part of the ongoing life of Houston.”