Houston Chamber Choir
Photo: Courtesy Houston Chamber Choir
Like so much else these days, enchantment is rare. Fortunately, the singers of the Houston Chamber Choir have taken it upon themselves to create their own magic.
The choir will wrap up its 2021-22 season on May 21 with “Once Upon a Time,” a concert all about fairy tales, true love and happy endings. And it’s not too soon, notes Robert Simpson, founder and artistic director of the choir.
“It seemed like the perfect way to have a happy ending for what for us has been a truly remarkable opportunity to get back to live performances, to be received by our audiences with such enthusiasm, and frankly just to send us into the summer with a smile and with a sense of the child’s delight in us, whatever our age,” he says.
Simpson chose several pieces related to these themes, including the song “Once Upon a Time” from the 2004 Broadway production “Brooklyn, the Musical”; and ‘The Gallant Weaver’, set to music by Scottish composer James MacMillan from a poem by his compatriot Robert Burns. But the centerpiece is another “Once Upon a Time”, this one a recent collaboration between Matthew Guard, director of the Boston-based Skylark Vocal Ensemble; storyteller Sarah Walker; and Pennsylvania-based composer Benedict Sheehan.
The piece asks a narrator to read “Snow White” and “The Little Mermaid”, interspersed with a variety of shorter choral works by, among others, Francis Poulenc, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Finland’s Einojuhani Rautavaara. (In Houston, due to time constraints, the Simpsons Choir will only perform the “Snow White” section; Channel 2 personality Courtney Zavala will serve as narrator.)
Sheehan created the incidental music linking these disparate compositions, a task easier said than done. “As a composer, it’s a unique challenge in the sense of having to work with material provided by others and kind of staying in the background so that it doesn’t overwhelm the narrative, but gives the together a musical and dramatic sense,” he says.
“It’s a bit like film music,” adds Sheehan. “I think the end result is something that has never been done before in this way.”
Fairy tales are of course much more than just children’s stories; they modeled appropriate and inappropriate moral behavior for centuries before Walt Disney arrived. “Every fairy tale is a magic mirror that reflects some aspect of our inner world and the stages required by our evolution from immaturity to maturity,” Austrian child psychologist and author Bruno Bettleheim wrote in his groundbreaking 1975 book. “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.
Of “Snow White”—published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, but much older than that—Bettleheim wrote: “The story is essentially about Oedipal conflicts between mother and daughter; with childhood; and finally with adolescence, emphasizing what constitutes a good childhood and what is necessary to get out of it.
Houston Chamber Choir: “Once Upon a Time”
When: 7:30 p.m. May 21
Or: South Main Baptist Church, 4100 Main St.
Details: $25; 713-224-5566; www.houstonchamberchoir.org
Composers have long drawn inspiration from fairy tales; think of Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig”, Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” or Englebert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”. Despite their sometimes gruesome nature, something about these stories – their generally clear resolutions, perhaps? – strikes a deeply comforting chord.
“I think they have a way of taking you to another plane of existence, to a parallel universe, where you won’t be told how things are, and so you don’t perceive it as a threat,” Sheehan says. . . “You don’t see yourself being told what to do or what to believe, but you are invited to come out of yourself and imagine what might be.”
Listening to music creates many of the same conditions, he argues – “a certain kind of openness to things that go beyond sensory experience and beyond the everyday, beyond the mundane” .
“You’re invited into some sort of transcendental realm,” Sheehan continues. “I think fairy tales do it one way, and music does it another way, and then you put them together and you get something really gripping and really deep.”
It’s all very interesting, of course, but what does it mean in terms of Saturday’s concert?
“There is an unmistakable need for the human spirit to be challenged, inspired and nurtured by these stories of things beyond our common experience,” Simpson says. “For me, it’s a wonderful way to stay like a child and be fascinated by everything that happens, [and] despite other things going on around us, knowing that there is still magic in the world.
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.