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Chamber Choir Takes Show on the Road


Colin Eatock

Houston Chronicle


These are busy times for the Houston Chamber Choir. A few short weeks after this weekend's pair of concerts, the choir's 26 singers will pack their bags and head out on tour.

They'll make their New York debut on April 13 and perform at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., two days later. On this tour, the choir will sing the same program it's singing locally.

Since its establishment in 1996, the choir has toured on only a few occasions - throughout the Southeast, to Chicago, and to Llangollen, Wales. Yet music director Robert Simpson says touring is an essential part of his choir's activities.

"We're very happy to be providing professional choral music in Houston," Simpson says. "But there's something exciting about going beyond our city's borders. In New York and at Yale we're going to be judged by international standards - and this is a challenge we're eager to take on."

Simpson says the upcoming tour originated in 2010, when Marguerite Brooks, a music professor at Yale, visited Houston and guest-conducted his choir. She was so impressed, she invited the choir to perform in New Haven.

Simpson then began to look for other possible venues in the Northeast. He found a second engagement in New York at Trinity Church Wall Street - well known for its high-quality music programming. A third concert, sandwiched between New York and New Haven, will take place in Darien, Conn.

"We'll be ambassadors for Houston," Simpson adds, "and we take that very seriously."

To underscore this point, he's programmed works by a trio of composers associated with Houston - within a mixed program of works by Johannes Brahms, some Elizabethan English composers and several others.

All three of the Houston-based works were commissioned by the choir. And one of them - "A Dome of Many-Colored Glass," by Dominick DiOrio - will receive its world premiere on Saturday.

DiOrio, 27, is a native New Englander who's been teaching at Lone Star College in Montgomery since 2009. He's a composer and a conductor - he also sings in the choir's tenor section.

"My piece is a setting of four poems by Amy Lowell," DiOrio says, "who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1926. The poems depict certain seasons, changing and evolving. They're written in a very image-rich language."

Rather than using a piano as an accompanying instrument, DiOrio has scored his new work for choir and marimba. He uses the term "cantata-concerto" to describe the 15-minute composition.

"I've always found the marimba to be a beautifully warm instrument, and there are few pieces for voices and marimba. It has timbral qualities I wanted to employ."

DiOrio's choice of instruments also allowed Simpson to invite his brother, New York percussionist Scott Simpson, to play the marimba part. The premiere of "A Dome of Many-Colored Glass" will be a family affair.

The other two composers associated with Houston are David Ashley White, director of the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston, and Christopher Theofanidis, a UH graduate who now teaches at Yale.

White's "The Blue Estuaries" was premiered in 1999 by the choir at a National Choral Directors Association convention in Chicago. (This time around, the choir will perform only two movements from the piece.)

Theofanidis's "Messages to Myself" was commissioned in 2008 by the choir for an American Masterpieces Choral Festival, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

"We have a new commission and two commissions from the recent past," Simpson points out. "They signal our commitment to new works and demonstrate the choir's ability to handle new music."

Colin Eatock is a writer who covers classical music. He lives in Toronto.

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