BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win

BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win
Houston Chamber Choir is the recipient of Chorus America's 2018 Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence. HCC Founder and Artistic Director Robert Simpson (pictured above), Managing Director Mariam Khalili, and Manager of Operations Grace Roman will travel to Chicago to receive the award at the 2018 Chorus America Conference, scheduled for June 20-23, 2018.

Robert Simpson, the founder and artistic director of Houston Chamber Choir, has been in a whirlwind, a waking dream as intoxicating as communion wine and as unreal as that spinning top in the last scene of INCEPTION, since Good Friday when he learned that Houston Chamber Choir, the chorale he established in 1995, was winner of the 2018 Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence. But he still took time to break bread with BroadwayWorld. Take a look at my interview with Simpson below.


BWW: Where were you when you received news of the award? What happened in that moment and the moments following?

Simpson: This year I served on another Chorus America award panel, so I knew the date they would call the winners would be March 30, Good Friday. I wondered if they might start calling winners a day or two earlier, so by Wednesday I was carrying my phone everywhere. No call that day or the next. Friday morning, no call. I went to church, came back to my office and got lost in the details of preparing for Easter services (I am also the Canon for Music at Christ Church Cathedral downtown) when my phone went off. Chorus America is based in Washington, D.C., and so when I saw Alexandria on the caller ID I froze. Trying to sound casual, I answered, and Catherine Dehoney, a good friend and President of Chorus America was on the line. "Bob, I'm about to make you very happy. The Houston Chamber Choir has won the 2018 Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence." Sitting down in the nearest chair, all I could manage was, "Well, how about that?"

BWW: How do you feel now, even?

Simpson: I have received a number of congratulatory emails from my colleagues around the country, and each time I reply to them I have a sense of slight unreality. The list of past recipients of the Margaret Hills Award reads like a Who's Who of American professional choirs: Chanticleer, Cantus, Conspirare, Dale Warland Singers, The Crossing. To be in their company gives me a tremendous sense of pride in what the Chamber Choir musicians, the board and the staff have achieved.

BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win
"The list of past recipients of the Margaret Hills Award reads like a Who's Who of American professional choirs," says Simpson. "To be in their company gives me a tremendous sense of pride in what the Chamber Choir musicians, the board and the staff have achieved." Above, Houston Chamber Choir soprano Rebecca Heath, one such musician, performs in THIS AMERICAN VOICE.

BWW: Chorus America cited several reasons for awarding Houston Chamber Choir the Margaret Hillis Award, one being Houston Chamber Choir's commitment to commissioning new works and partnering with guest conductors. Can you add flesh to theses accolades? Which productions and artists do you think the award committee have in mind?

Simpson: From our earliest days, commissioning new works has been a top priority for the Chamber Choir, focusing especially on composers with Houston and Texas connections. I'm proud that our first commission went to David Ashley White, a long time friend, internationally recognized composer and former Director of the UH Moores School of Music. Christopher Theofanidis received our second commission. He grew up in Houston and has achieved super star status as a composer. He teaches composition at Yale. Further commissions from Dominick DiOrio and Jocelyn Hagan have been just as successful and personally satisfying. For our most recent commission, we went outside the classical music realm to Grammy award-winning jazz bassist, Christian McBride. Christian had never written a work for choir, and he and I had a wonderful time considering its form, the text and the way his jazz trio and the Chamber Choir would interact. What a thrilling experience it was for all of us to join them in the premiere of "The Healing of the Sun."

Guest conductors have played an essential role in the continued growth of the Houston Chamber Choir. Starting with the legendary Peter Phillips, founder of the Tallis Scholars in 2005, I have invited a number of specialists to share their knowledge and passion with us. I can't believe how fortunate we've been to work with American conductors Anton Armstrong and Joseph Flummerfelt, Maria Guinand from Venezuela, Paul Hillier, an acknowledged authority on music from the Baltic region, Simon Carrington, founding member of the King's Singers, Schütz scholar Manfred Cordes from Bremen, Germany and Alex Blachly, noted Renaissance specialist. Additionally, we have had the privilege of performing with jazz great David Brubeck and his quartet whom we brought back to Houston after a 20-year absence. I fulfilled a long-time dream when Peter Schickele joined us for a P.D.Q. Bach evening entitled, "Bach in the Saddle."

BWW: Chorus America also mentioned the choir's educational outreach, giving focus to the 19th Annual Invitational Choral Festival. Outside of earning prestigious awards, what impact does the festival and invitational have on Houston?

Simpson: The arts are essential for a vibrant society. We recognize the vital role we can play in nurturing a love of music in children through their active participation in singing. The Houston Chamber Choir has formed choirs in three of our area's most challenged schools, offering weekly activities that give elementary age students the personal satisfaction and joy of working with others to achieve an artistic goal. We use international folksongs as the basis of our repertoire, which naturally open the way for discussions of cultures and traditions around the world.

BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win
As part of its educational and community outreach, the Houston Chamber Choir initiated the weekly in-school program RISE UP SINGING! in 2013. The company also hosts an annual invitational choral festival, which is little more than a stone's throw away from its 20-year milestone. "This is always one of the highlights of the year for the Chamber Choir musicians and me," says Simpson of the choral festival. "It is inspiring to hear the quality of their music and an honor to pay tribute to our outstanding music educators and their students." Above, the Hubenak Elementary School Choir performs at HEAR THE FUTURE: The 18th Annual Invitational Choral Festival, held in 2017.

With "Hear the Future," our invitational school choral festival about to celebrate its 20th anniversary, we showcase the accomplishments of our region's music educators and their students. Each year we invite a choir from an elementary school, a middle school and a high school. This is always one of the highlights of the year for the Chamber Choir musicians and me. It is inspiring to hear the quality of their music and an honor to pay tribute to our outstanding music educators and their students.

BWW: There are few chamber music ensembles in Houston, comparative to the number of theaters at least. What challenges do you face in maintaining a professional choral ensemble as well as stimulating growth?

Simpson: Professional choirs are relatively new to the American music scene. Unlike Europe and Great Britain where professional choirs are common and routinely funded by broadcasting corporations or the government, choirs in America have been largely voluntary community, college or church ensembles. It was as a member of a boy choir at church that I fell in love with music. I am devoted to singing for personal pleasure, relaxation and enrichment. But, just as with symphonies and opera companies, there is a place for professional choral music at the highest artistic levels performed by individuals who have devoted lives to developing their instrument - their voice. I have been gratified by the degree to which Houston embraces all forms of choral singing. We have wonderful choirs and sensational directors leading them. Chorus America conducted a survey several years ago that showed that more people participate in choirs than any other form of musical activity. By sheer numbers, choral singing is playing a major part in our country's artistic life.

BWW: What does this award mean for Houston Chamber Choir's future?

Simpson: This award, one of the most prestigious that an American choir can win, recognizes the talent and hard work of our incredible musicians, board members and office staff. It is a validation of what we have sought to achieve over our 22-year history. Just as importantly, it serves to inspire us and strengthen our resolve to achieve more completely our mission to be a "professional ensemble dedicated to increasing the awareness, appreciation and esteem of choral music through performance, outreach and education."


Houston Chamber Choir is comprised of 26 professional singers, most of whom have studied at the top music schools and conservatories in the United States including Julliard, New England Conservatory, University of Houston, and the University of Texas. Visit houstonchamberchoir.org or watch the video below to learn more about the chamber choir.

Chorus America is governed by a diverse board of accomplished arts leaders from across North America, and the executive staff is headquartered in Washington, DC. It was founded as the Association of Professional Vocal Ensembles in 1977 to gain recognition for professional choruses and today represents hundreds of choruses of every kind throughout North America and beyond.

BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win
Houston Chamber Choir at South Main Baptist Church performing THIS AMERICAN VOICE, the first concert of the Houston Chamber Choir 2017-2018 season.

BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win
Choir member Abby Powell (alto) performs in THIS AMERICAN VOICE, the first concert of the Houston Chamber Choir 2017-2018 season.

BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win
Choir member Rebecca Heath (soprano) performs in THIS AMERICAN VOICE, the first concert of the Houston Chamber Choir 2017-2018 season.

BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win
Choir member Kelli Lawless (soprano) performs in THIS AMERICAN VOICE, the first concert of the Houston Chamber Choir 2017-2018 season.

BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win
Choir member Kammi Estelle (soprano) performs in THIS AMERICAN VOICE, the first concert of the Houston Chamber Choir 2017-2018 season.

BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win
Houston Chamber Choir at South Main Baptist Church performing THIS AMERICAN VOICE, the first concert of the Houston Chamber Choir 2017-2018 season.

BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win
The Hubenak Elementary School Choir at HEAR THE FUTURE: The 18th Annual Invitational Choral Festival.

BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win
The Hubenak Elementary School Choir at HEAR THE FUTURE: The 18th Annual Invitational Choral Festival.

BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win
The Deer Park Junior High School Choir at HEAR THE FUTURE: The 18th Annual Invitational Choral Festival.

BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win
The Dawson High School Encore Choir at HEAR THE FUTURE: The 18th Annual Invitational Choral Festival.

BWW Interview: HCC Artistic Director Robert Simpson on the Chamber Choir's Margaret Hillis Award Win
The Dawson High School Encore Choir at HEAR THE FUTURE: The 18th Annual Invitational Choral Festival.



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