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The Houston chamber choir that draws packed crowds: When church rocks

The Houston chamber choir that draws packed crowds: When church rocks

Think of the quintessential choir concert. Perhaps a sparse graying audience, cutesy music, Broadway-esque show tunes with plenty of jazz hands, attended mostly by family supporters, right? 

Throw all those misconceptions away when thinking of the Houston Chamber Choir, one of the city's oldest professional choirs. Its recent season finale concert at The Church of Saint John the Divine was packed, standing room only, pulling in a diverse audience ranging from Gleeks to scholars and everything in between.

I had no idea, and love nothing more when the art scene surprises me. This group is serious about music and its stylistic performance, and so are its loyal disciples. 

Most choirs are rather large, which is great if you are performing works like Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, Orff's Carmina Burana or Verdi's Requiem. But the beauty of a chamber choir is found in the members, each contributing something more personal to the overall aesthetic. It's more intimate when singers have a higher stake in the group's overall sound. And their individual pride was apparent, beaming with glee and enjoying every note, phrase and composition.

It was contagious, transferring to the audience, myself included (don't worry, I behaved). 

Recreating a 17th century Italian sacred choral orgy, artistic director Robert Simpson took concertgoers back to a time when religious festas ruled the social calendar. It may have been sacred, but Roman Catholics in Venice, Ferrara and Bologna knew how to get their party on.

The concert began with a short Antiphon — a call and response liturgical work, sometimes in the style of a Gregorian Chant — usually sang for Second Vespers during the Feast of the Annunciation. The work served almost as a fanfare for things to come, summarizing the choir's strengths. The group achieved that impalpable early music aesthetic, where long notes seem to impulsively grow in intensity, only to relax at their climax (often referred to as the Baroque orgasm) and dissolve in the hall's resonance.

Filled with instances of tierce de picardie, each sunny cadence offered happy moments of repose.

Alessandro Grandi's Laetatus sum gave the singers a chance to showcase their huge dynamic range. The work was originally written to be performed in the church of St. Mark in Venice, where the composer was an organist. Crafted in double choir setting, the stereo effect created by the dueling four-part choirs was seamless, picking up the melodic line where the other had left off.

Tenor Eduardo Tercero's clear and harmonically rich voice was suited to interpret Giovanni Paolo Colonna's O lucidissima dies. Written in alternating aria and recitative styles, the piece allowed Tercero the opportunity to play with appropriate time liberties and pacing. His shimmering vibrato and style-fitting ornaments evoked the essence of the era, shaping each line carefully with a seemingly off-the-cuff approach.

Notable solos throughout the performance included tenor Jeffrey Ragsdale, showcasing his superhuman alto range, just like his colleague Gerald Caliendo. Soprano Kammi Estelle had ridiculous breath control, singing through long phrases with virtuosic ease. Kelli Shircliffe, soprano, sailed up high, solos soaring with crystal clear presence and perfect intonation. Bass Joshua Wilson had a yummi interpretive voice, the kind that vibrates endlessly and projects easily. 

In keeping with the custom of the period where the Mass received the most intricate musical setting, the concert's second half programmed Colonna's Messa a Nove Voci, accompanied by Houston's growing corps of early music instrumentalists. Showing off the composer's training in counterpoint, the choir had the responsibility of bringing out every fugue entry, outlining every step in harmonic sequences and continuing to build musical tension.

Where some musicians would be tempted to break out into a more modernized grandiose style, the choir kept its artistic integrity intact and aimed for color subtlety.

In hospitable Southern style, the concert ended in a rousing display of appreciation: a standing ovation. Amen.

Curious about the Houston Chamber Choir? Watch this video:

Houston Chamber Choir
The Houston Chamber Choir knows how to draw — and please — a crowd.