Passion for Performing

No stage is too big — or small — for the University of Houston’s Moores Concert Chorale. From local churches to international concert halls, UH’s award-winning choir — performing a mix of classical music and popular standards — is up for any performance.

Credit the group’s accessibility to its longtime director Betsy Cook Weber. In addition to auditioning singers, selecting repertoire and leading rehearsals, she also coordinates the chorale’s busy performance schedule. Each year, the group performs between 10 and 20 shows.

Betsy Cook Weber directs the chorale during rehearsal at Moores School of Music.

“We deliver a really good show, no matter whether it’s a big or small venue,” said Weber, director of choral studies at UH’s Moores School of Music. “That’s part of our training as performers. The size of the stage doesn’t matter as long as a willing audience is ready to see us perform.”

The chorale’s busy calendar, however, keeps the group in top shape. In 2015, Weber (a UH alumna) and the group traveled for the fourth time to Europe and competed in the Grand Prix of Nations in Magdeburg, Germany. They returned to Houston with world championship honors.

Months later, the chorale was notified that it was ranked No. 3 among the world’s leading choirs. The ranking was part of choral festival organizer Interkultur’s Top 1,000 Choirs list. The organization also recognized the Moores Concert Chorale as No. 1 on its list of 50 best Children’s and Youth Choirs (under the age of 24).

These honors are no doubt gratifying for Weber and Chorale members, but the ultimate reward for these singers is the applause from the audience.

“When you get this kind of feedback, you want more of it,” Weber said. “It validates all of the hard work that is put into a performance. I remember certain ovations we received after strong performances. Those are moments I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Selecting Singers

Not just any singer can step on the stage as a member of the Moores Concert Chorale. Weber conducts thorough auditions to select the right voices.

Voice alone is not the determining factor, Weber said. Prospective members must have proven themselves in another Moores School of Music vocal ensemble such as ManCorps, ManChoir or the Women’s Chorus — all led by Jeb Mueller associate director of choral studies.

“They have to have a great work ethic and be dependable,” Weber said. “That’s determined when they perform with other UH ensembles.”

Singers also must demonstrate their sight singing abilities — or performing a piece of music that they have not read or rehearsed previously.

“The audition can be seen as challenging or nerve-wracking, but it’s important to remember that all the skills needed to have a great audition are skills that can be gained and improved on by practice,” said junior Justin Shen, who joined the Concert Chorale in 2014.

Welcome to the Show

Each year, Weber selects 40 singers for the chorale. These performers must balance their coursework with rehearsal schedules and local and out of town performances.

The chorale delivers several performances at UH’s Moores Opera House and also takes its beautiful voices into the community. Concerts have been performed in collaboration with Houston-based musicians and even national touring acts.

The group performed at the 2008 Latin Grammy Awards ceremony at the Toyota Center, participated in the 2009 “Star Wars In Concert” at Jones Hall (featuring C3PO actor Anthony Daniels), opened for the Temptations at the Mayor’s Holiday Tree Lighting in 2012 and backed platinum-selling artist Josh Groban in 2014. The group closed out 2015 backing up popular singer-songwriter Jim Brickman at Cullen Performance Hall.

“The benefits of these kinds of performances is to show students how their classical training will translate into professional music making,” she said. “They also get a glimpse into how these concerts work. When we performed in the Josh Groban concert, we never saw him until the night of the concert. We worked with the music director and his band and a stand-in vocalist during rehearsals. It’s all very interesting to see how these concerts are put together.”

The Chorale also extends its reach into local churches. It performs frequently in the city’s most beautiful places of worship, including Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. This year, the group performed a rare concert at Houston’s Villa de Matel Convent.

The choir at Villa de Matel. Photo by Todd Spoth.

These concerts entertain and inspire Houstonians, as well as educate singers on classic works.

“On the many occasions Dr. Betsy Weber and the UH Concert Chorale have performed in the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the artistry and care are top notch,” said Co-Cathedral organist and music director Crista Miller. “My favorite performance, however, was in March 2014. Betsy approached me about having the Chorale perform Frank Martin’s beautiful ‘Mass for Double Choir’. She wanted this to be as the composer wished — to be sung within the context of a live Mass, rather than a ‘mere’ concert. Students from Chorale who regularly sing at the Co-Cathedral led the Gregorian chants, visibly demonstrating a laboratory environment for student leadership. Dr. Weber’s vision in creating this experience for the students and for the public attending the Mass was very moving on all levels — artistic, scholarly and spiritual.”

World Stage

Houstonians aren’t the only ones to experience the Concert Chorale’s talents. Weber has taken the group to prestigious music conferences, including the Texas Music Educators Association Conference in San Antonio (in 2005 and 2008) and the American Choral Directors National Convention in Miami (in 2007).

In 2009, Weber entered the Chorale in its first international festival and competition. The group traveled to Llangollen, Wales for the prestigious Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod. During its European debut, the group took first place in the festival’s chamber music competition.

Two years later, the group returned to Europe for Florilège Vocal de Tours in Tours, France. During that trip, it earned second place in the Mixed Choir Competition and an award for Best New Work (the work “I Cannot Live with You” by UH music professor David Ashley White). In 2013, it performed at the International Chamber Choir Competition in Germany, where it received first prize and the Gustave Charlier-Anna Maroye Prize for best interpretation of a religious chorale work (“Splendid Jewel” by Steven Paulus).

In 2015, the group further cemented its international reputation with top honors at Germany’s Grand Prix of Nations.

These events not only promote the chorale, they further showcase the University of Houston as a haven for student talents.

“It became abundantly clear to me that if the Chorale simply stayed at home and delivered concerts, the students would not get the recognition they deserve,” Weber said. “Outside validation is very important. There are not collegiate level choral competitions in the U.S., so we had to look outside of the country for that kind of recognition. These experiences have validated what people in Houston know — UH has a world class singing program.”

Catherine Goode agrees. During her freshman year, the singer journeyed with the Chorale to France. She returned to Europe three more times with her fellow singers before graduating in May 2015.

“Performing for a variety of audiences means that our music and efforts are able to touch that many more people,” said Goode, who graduated in 2015. “One thing Chorale takes pride in is communicating emotionally and expressively while performing, and the more people we can share that with, the better. It’s always exciting to perform for an audience for the first time, like in our European competitions, and see their positive reaction to what we’re doing. It’s a nice affirmation.”

These overseas excursions have provided wonderful exposure for the Chorale, but the trips have been educational as well. It’s not often that students can hear choirs from other countries.

“These singers receive an irreplaceable educational experience,” Weber said. “You can watch their faces as they observe these groups. They are learning throughout each trip — and not just about singing. They’re learning about listening, discipline, camaraderie and much more.”

Hitting the Right Notes

Performing on stage is just one part of the Moores Concert Chorale experience. While Weber delivers expert guidance with regard to singing and performing, she also instills values that will benefit them in life. Weber’s lessons in punctuality and preparedness will no doubt be applied to singers’ careers long after they’ve left the stage.

“The biggest thing I learned is the importance of always being prepared — learn your music ahead of time and arrive early,” said Goode, who is now pursuing a graduate degree in music at Michigan State University. “You learn how to work and communicate with other people. Chorale wouldn’t be half the choir it is if it weren’t for the communication skills we’ve developed as an ensemble, which includes taking initiative and ownership of the music preparation process.”

Shen concurs and adds that Weber fuels students’ passion and appetites for excellence in both music and their career goals.

“She instills respect, discipline and determination within all her students. Though all of these attributes are great, I think the most important trait she teaches us is passion,” he said. “Her passion for her field is something that she shows to us every rehearsal. It’s part of what makes her an extraordinary teacher and director. Each one of us, I believe, should strive to have her level of dedication in any career path that we choose.”

Katie Dugat earned her bachelor’s degree in 2011 and embarked on a law career. Since graduating from the UH Law Center in 2015, she became an associate with Baker & McKenzie LLP. Dugat is far from the music stage but still finds inspiration from her time with the chorale.

“One of the biggest takeaways from my time with the Chorale was learning how to push myself beyond my capabilities,” she said. “Being with this group allows you to work past the point that you think you can or harder than you think you can. It is not stopping when it would be easy or convenient because the people that excel in life don’t do that — the great musicians, the great attorneys, the great anyone really. My entire music experience at UH taught me that.”

Unbreakable Bonds

Weber’s role as director is no doubt challenging. One of the most difficult parts of her job, she said, is bidding farewell to graduating students.

At the conclusion of each academic year, the Chorale hosts the annual Red Carnation Concert that spotlights singers who are graduating. It’s often an emotional night for Weber and the performers.

“I should be rejoicing, but a part of me is actually a little sad,” she said. “I watch these wonderful students walk by and think, ‘I’ll never be able to replace them.’ The beauty is that their departures create openings for other students to flourish. It’s like the circle of life.”

Departing Chorale students are equally emotional when it’s time to close this chapter of their UH career. Leaving UH and the Moores Concert Chorale can be difficult. Still, students emerge from the Chorale and the University a little wiser, more prepared for life’s challenges and with memories that will last a lifetime.

“I really appreciated my time as a member of this group,” Dugat said. “I know it was a wonderful outlet for many different people. Whether it helped some cultivate love for music or whether it was a stepping stone to other things, being part of the Chorale has so many lasting benefits. This is a phenomenal group that taught me many things that I have taken into my career, and I’m proud to have been a part of it.”