classical music

New Director of Houston Symphony Chorus Debuts This Weekend

Longtime director Charles Hausmann hands the reins to his former assistant, Betsy Cook Weber.

By Michael Hardy November 20, 2014

The Houston Symphony Chorus

Mozart's Requiem + Beethoven
Nov 20, 22 & 23
Houston Symphony
Jones Hall
615 Louisiana St.

Earlier this year the Houston Symphony announced that Charles Hausmann, who had directed the symphony chorus for 28 years, would be stepping down, to be succeeded by his former assistant Betsy Cook Weber. One of Weber’s first tasks was to personally re-audition every member of the all-volunteer chorus, as well as first-timers hoping to win a place for themselves.

Around 250 Houstonians ended up entering the blind audition for a spot in the 2014–15 chorus. While Weber and the other judges kept score behind a curtain, each person sang an excerpt from Handel’s Messiah and sight-read a piece of music. The process was a bit like firing everyone in a company and then asking them to compete for their old jobs with a batch of new applicants. Not surprisingly, this rubbed a few longtime choristers the wrong way. 

Betsy Cook Weber

“Some very fine singers I think were caught off guard by the audition process,” said Weber, who is also a professor of music and director of choral studies at the University of Houston. “We were very clear about what the process would be, but nonetheless I think they felt a little unprepared when they actually took the audition.” Approximately half of the people who auditioned will be onstage at Jones Hall this weekend as part of the chorus for Mozart’s epic Requiem mass and Brahms’s Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny). (Beethoven's Coriolan and Egmont overtures fill out the program.) The concert, conducted by music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada, marks Weber’s debut as director of the chorus.

As for anyone who didn’t make the cut this year, Weber said they’ll soon have another crack at it—unlike Hausmann, who only staged auditions every other year, Weber said she intends to make them an annual institution. “One of the lovely things about the chorus is that so many people have stayed on year after year, so they have a lot of institutional memory, and they know the pieces in the repertoire very, very well,” she said. “They’ve sung these pieces for many conductors. At the same time, there’s a lot of turnover, and that’s good because it brings in new singers, mostly younger, who have a lot of energy and power and flexibility in their singing.”

Although Weber is deeply familiar with the two choral works on this weekend’s program, having worked with Hausmann on them as his assistant, she says she’s never seen them paired together before, although the idea made intuitive sense to her. For one thing, Brahms wrote the Schicksalslied shortly after his own Requiem mass, so death was clearly on his mind. Mozart and Brahms were both in their mid-30s when they composed the works.

“They were by no means youthful composers at that point, but they were still youthful men, and their take on destiny and death are both fairly somber. Which doesn’t mean the audience needs to dread the experience; it just means that both pieces are very, very powerful. I find it comforting to know that every human on the planet has always wondered what happens after death. And these are two giants sharing their views about that topic.”


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