Duty Calls

The Houston Symphony Chorus Challenges Itself With Rachmaninoff's The Bells

The all-volunteer chorus is up to the task.

By Holly Beretto May 3, 2019

Image: Jeff Fitlow

When the Houston Symphony performs Rachmaninoff’s The Bells this month, it will not only be a showcase for the orchestra—it’s a huge performance for the Houston Symphony Chorus.

Rachmaninoff’s symphony is based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem of the same name. The composer worked from a Russian translation of the poem, constructing it into a four-movement orchestral piece. The symphony explores how bells mark the passages of time throughout a life. Bells ring to mark joyful celebrations, as well as ringing to raise the alarms of war or emergency, and finally ringing the more somber tones of death.

“It’s extremely beautiful,” says Betsy Weber, director of the Houston Symphony Chorus. “I think it’s one of Rachmaninoff’s best pieces.”

It’s also considered a choral masterpiece. It’s a challenging arrangement, Weber admits, and requires a strong chorus to perform with the orchestra’s musicians. She thinks the Symphony’s chorus is more than up to the challenge. Audiences might well expect a chorus that sings with one of the country’s best symphonies to be accomplished, but what Houston audiences may not know is that the Houston Symphony Chorus is an all-volunteer ensemble.

Betsy Cook Weber

“The chorus has always been all volunteer,” Weber explains. “In fact, that mirrors a tradition throughout Europe and the U.S. and Canada.”

The chorus rehearses once a week at Trinity Lutheran Church. For The Bells, Weber says the group began working on the piece a few months back. In addition to rehearsing as a full ensemble, smaller vocal sections break off and rehearse throughout the preparation period. That means that the singers are often working on more than one show. For instance, says Weber, while rehearsals for The Bells were beginning, the group was working on Carmina Burana, and as they were becoming more familiar with The Bells, she had them preparing for an upcoming performance of Broadway music.

“It’s so much fun,” she says about directing the singers. “We have some really skilled musicians.”

One of those is Michael Dorn, a bass who is also the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church. He’s in his third season singing with the Houston Symphony Chorus.

“Any opportunity to sing with the chorus or in a group is an absolute treat,” he says. “It is a lot of work. Betsy is a stickler on making sure we are pronouncing things correctly as well as singing properly—and I am glad that she is.”

Dorn says it’s a point of pride to sing with the symphony. He’s approaching 50 performances with the orchestra, and he’s loved the way the chorus is welcoming to its members.

“It’s helped me grow,” he says of the experience. “I’ve sung in pop performances, in heavy-duty classical pieces, in more contemporary concerts. A year ago, I sang Messiah. We always get to meet with the conductor, and the Messiah rehearsal with the conductor was like a three-hour doctoral level course at seminary.” He laughs. “It gave me material for my sermons.”

Being involved in the chorus has allowed both Dorn and Weber to expand their knowledge of music (Weber teaches on the faculty at UH), as well as giving them a chance to lend their talents to the community. For The Bells, Weber anticipates audiences are going to be surprised at both the professionalism and the sheer talent the chorus exhibits.

“I might be biased, but I think their singing is so inspiring,” she says of the ensemble. “And it says something so wonderful about our chorus that these people devote this amount of time and talent to singing this beautiful music.”

May 9–12. Tickets from $25. Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St. 713-224-7575. More info and tickets at houstonsymphony.org.

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