The happy music of the season will resonate thanks to the Houston Chamber Choir Christmas by candlelight, taking place Friday and Saturday at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Houston with a streaming option available from December 26. Special guests will be international organ recitalist Daryl Robinson and the Houston Treble Choir, conducted by Marianna Parnas-Simpson.
“This concert is always a highlight of our season. The cathedral is a very historic building here in town, and when lit by candlelight, it’s absolutely magical,” said Bob Simspon, founder of the Houston Chamber Choir.
All other years, the choir typically performs its holiday show at Villa de Matel on the east side of Houston, but due to COVID-19 precautions, the choir has chosen a new venue, which brings its own unique offerings for this concert. At Christ Church Cathedral, the organ console will be placed in full view of the public, making it a central part of the music, which ranges from the Renaissance to new favourites. It also allows audiences to see the fascinating choreography that occurs between an organist’s fingers, feet and stops – those series of buttons that line each side of the organ’s keyboard.
“It’s a wonderful visual display of virtuosity, and the organ has so many wonderful sounds that it creates a special mood in itself. For example, ‘I Saw Three Ships’ arranged by Simon Preston uses the silvery sounds of bells, and there’s the quality of flutes and piccolos that adds a wonderfully delicate feel to it,” Simpson said. “There are other pieces like ‘Tomorrow Should Be My Dancing Day’ by John Gardner, where the organ functions as a percussion instrument as well as a melodic instrument. The organ is an equal partner in these pieces and brings a sense of color and variety to the music that is truly a nice counterpart to the vocals.
Simpson has also programmed music that will feature the work of the choir members for this year’s holiday show. Ryan Brown, bassist and assistant professor at Lone Star College-University Park, arranged “Silent Night.” Matthew Lyon Hazzard performed a sensitive staging of William Blake’s “The Lamb.” The two musicians will conduct their pieces during the concert.
The choir will also perform songs from yesteryear like “O Magnum Mysterium” and Harold Darke’s “In The Bleak Midwinter” as well as new renditions. A new arrangement of Marvin Gaspard’s “Pat-a-Pan” as well as William Byrd’s “This Day Christ Was Born” might be new to audiences’ ears. Philip Stopford’s “A Christmas Blessing” will provide a haunting and emotional capstone to the concert.
“[Making sure people are] enjoying the program and feeling like the music fills their soul…those were the first orders of the day as I was selecting this program,” he said.
Of course, taking full advantage of the organ, Simpson reserved places for Robinson’s solo numbers to dot the set list. Additionally, audience members can participate in sing-alongs like “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
“It’s a program designed to intrigue people who love choral music as well as those new to choral music. We want to give them that moment where they say, “Ah, yes, now it feels like Christmas.” We do all of that in this program,” Simpson added. “This program is designed to bring everyone to a sense of joy at the end of the concert…to experience the joy and hope that comes from this music and the holiday season.”
Simpson says the goal is to return to Villa de Matel next year if fate permits, but this year’s setting offers another unique attribute. Founded on March 16, 1839, Christ Church Cathedral was Houston’s first religious congregation and is the only one still worshiping at its original site from when Houston was the capital of the Republic of Texas.
As it is donation season, the Houston Chamber Choir is using this concert as a chance to give back to the community by accepting small toiletries to be donated to The Beacon and used in its Day Center program. Five days a week, homeless people receive a hot meal and have access to laundry facilities and hot showers inside the establishment. Small shampoos, conditioners, soaps and razors are encouraged as donation items.
The Houston Chamber Choir will perform Candlelight Christmas at 7:30 p.m. Friday and at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday Christ Church Cathedral, 1117 Texas. For tickets or information, call 713-224-5566 or visit houstonchamberchoir.org. $10 to $25. Free parking is available in the parking garage at 511 San Jacinto St. The concert will be available virtually starting December 26 on the Houston Chamber Choir’s digital stage.