UH professor becomes new director of Houston Symphony Chorus
UH’s own Betsy Cook Weber was named director of the Houston Symphony Chorus this summer. Don’t expect to see Weber on the podium, though — her job is entirely behind the scenes.
“I won’t be conducting the chorus, I’ll be preparing the chorus,” said Weber concerning her new position, which consists mainly of organizing and running rehearsals of the chorus to prepare them for the final rehearsals and performances with the Houston Symphony’s new music director, Andrés Orozco-Estrada.
Effective Sept. 1, Weber replaced Charles Hausmann as the director of choral studies at Moores School of Music. The Houston Symphony Chorus’ first performance with the Houston Symphony will be the evening of Nov. 20. The program includes Mozart’s Requiem and Brahms’ Schicksalslied, or Song of Destiny.
The job is not as easy as it may sound.
“When you prepare a piece for another conductor, you try to give a conductor as clean a product as possible. You try not to superimpose your own musical ideas on the piece, and you try to only leave what’s in the score,” Weber said.
But having said that, Weber still thinks it impossible to not impose her own ideas on the score.
Weber says that she communicates in great detail with Orozco-Estrada for his take on some of the finer minutia of the pieces, including tempo and style. Despite this communication, Weber stresses the importance of teaching adaptability to her new choir.
“Even if the director emails me one tempo marking, when he gets to rehearsal and he hears the hall and he hears the chorus, he may change it completely. Flexibility is key,” Weber said.
Weber’s appointment is also significant in terms of women’s equality in classical music. Classical music is a male-dominated profession, even by today’s standards. Some European orchestras still do not accept female applicants.
Of the so-called “Big Five” American orchestras, three — the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra — do not have their own choruses and instead use local professional or collegiate groups for choral symphonic works.
The other two, the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra, have their own choral groups, each of which has a male director, although Cleveland does have a female assistant director.
There is not a cohesive list of female choral symphonic directors in the United States, so it is very possible that Weber is the first of her kind, or at least the first amongst the larger American orchestras.
This fall won’t be Weber’s first time working with the Houston Symphony Chorus; she did doctoral work as an assistant director for Hausmann. Weber graduated with a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Conducting from UH in 1995.
However, when Weber graduated, the only job she could find was one she didn’t want — teaching elementary music in Spring Branch ISD.
She said she wasn’t interested in it at first, but after the first year found herself totally fascinated. She spent three more years teaching elementary music, then another three as a middle school choir director.
According to her, it has made all the difference in her understanding of professional musicians.
“When you teach at the ground level, you have an understanding of vocal development that you cannot acquire from reading (text)books; you understand mental and physical development, you understand learning disabilities, and all of that will manifest itself in adult singers as well. It was an indescribably beneficial experience,” Weber said.
Though it’s been 17 years since she last led the Houston Symphony Chorus, she feels confident that the experience has stuck with her.
“Even though it was long ago, I learned all of the choral symphonic repertoire,” Weber said. “I watched how the conductor interacts with the chorus and learned.”
Ticket information: Mozart’s Requiem + Beethoven. Nov 20, 22 at 8 p.m., Nov 23 at 2:30 p.m. at Jones Hall. Student tickets are $15. Visit houstonsymphony.org for more information.