We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Betsy Cook Weber as the new Director of the Houston Symphony Chorus. As she begins her new responsibilities, Houston Symphony Magazine spoke with Betsy about her plans for the Chorus her love of choral music.
Houston Symphony Magazine: As you began your tenure with the Symphony, you re-auditioned the entire Chorus. What was that process like?
Betsy Cook Weber: The process was both grueling and gratifying. We had an astounding response to the audition announcement and heard 249 singers, including both existing and prospective Chorus members. At twelve minutes per singer, the auditions took fifty long hours. A panel of distinguished choral directors from the area helped listen to and score each audition, which consisted of three parts: vocalizing, performing prepared musical excerpts, and sight singing. These were blind auditions, meaning that the singers sang from behind a sheet so that the panel did not know who they were, just as for orchestra auditions.
The auditions were important to make absolutely certain, as any new director would, that the Chorus consists of only the very best singers. We will use only 120 of those 249 singers for the first concert, so the selection process was quite rigorous, particularly when one realizes that those who auditioned didn’t just walk in off the street—everyone who auditioned brought experience, training, skill and talent.
HSM: What do you want the Chorus to contribute to the experience of Houston Symphony performances?
BCW: Musical excellence is our primary goal. I hope that audience members will be moved and transformed by our performances and that they will be surprised to learn that these wonderful singers are volunteers. I hope that the conductors and members of the orchestra will be proud of and pleased to collaborate with us.
HSM: You’re the Houston Symphony’s first new Chorus Director in nearly 30 years, and you worked extensively over the years with your predecessor, Charles Hausmann. What did your experience working with him show you about leading this Chorus?
BCW: I had had fairly substantial experience with the choral orchestral repertoire before working with Charles. As a student at North Texas, we sang routinely with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and also with the National Symphony. My master’s degree is from Westminster Choir College, which at that time provided the chorus for the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestras, and I sang in and served as rehearsal pianist for the chorus (playing rehearsals for Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim, among others).
Working with Charles as his Assistant Director and later Associate Director gave me an inside glimpse of how to organize rehearsals and how to prepare for conductors whom we might not meet until the week of the performance.
HSM: Why have you devoted your career to choral music?
BCW: I love the collaborative nature of the genre, and I do believe that a beautiful choral performance (or orchestral performance, for that matter) is a perfect example of the sum being greater than its parts. In addition, I love words, and the texts of the choral-orchestral repertoire, whether from Scripture or poetry, are beautiful and often explore issues that confound all of mankind.
HSM: What performances in the 2014-15 season are you particularly looking forward to?
BCW: I am particularly excited about our first performance of the season, the Mozart Requiem and Brahms’ Schicksalslied. Mozart and Brahms were both 35 when they wrote these works, which is only a couple of years younger than our new music director. I am already a big fan of Andrés, and I can’t wait to see what he does with these sublime works!
Dr. Betsy Cook Weber, who begins her tenure as director of the Houston Symphony Chorus this season, is professor of music and director of choral studies at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music. She teaches a full course load, oversees the large and varied choral area at the Moores School and is an internationally active conductor, clinician, adjudicator and lecturer. In 2013, Betsy became the 13th person and first woman to receive the Texas Choral Directors Association’s coveted Texas Choirmaster Award.
Under her leadership, The Moores School Concert Chorale has established a reputation as one of the world’s finest collegiate choirs. It has been a featured choir at multiple state and national conventions. Internationally, Chorale has received acclaim at prestigious competitions, including the National Eisteddfod of Wales, winning or placing in every category in which it was entered, and the Florilège Vocal in Tours, France. In May 2013, she led Chorale to a first-place finish as one of only 10 choirs selected worldwide to compete in the famous International Chamber Choir Competition in Marktoberdorf, Germany. She has prepared singers for Da Camera and early music orchestras Ars Lyrica and Mercury Houston. She is routinely called upon to prepare singers for touring shows, including Josh Groban, NBC’s Clash of the Choirs, Telemundo’s Latin Grammys and Star Wars in Concert.
Betsy served seven years as assistant and, later, associate director of the Houston Symphony Chorus, helping prepare major works for renowned conductors, including Robert Shaw, Christoph Eschenbach, Roger Wagner, Nicholas McGegan and Christopher Seaman.
She holds degrees from the University of North Texas, Westminster Choir College (Princeton, NJ) and the University of Houston.