Austinites pride themselves on the “Live Music Capital of the World” tagline, but the local love for big festivals, loud bars and coffee shop jams can overshadow classical forms of music. Those who want to experience the full spectrum of incredible musical happenings in our city need to add Chorus Austin to the top of their list.
Chorus Austin: Historic Institution
Formed in 1965 by City of Austin Parks Department, Chorus Austin quickly gained its footing and established an independent organization. Now in its 52nd season, the group is one of the oldest arts organizations in the city that has performed consistently every single year.
There are three choral groups under the Chorus Austin umbrella: the 180-member Symphonic Chorus, 32-member Chamber Ensemble and the newest addition, a Youth Chorus founded in 2015.
All of the singers are talented, local volunteers. Chorus and Ensemble members go through an audition process guided by Artistic Director and Conductor Ryan Heller. The tryout includes sight-reading music, demonstrating vocal range, identifying tones and presenting a well-prepared piece. The Youth Chorus members, who are 5th through 9th graders from church or school choirs, also go through an audition process with their director, Diana Hopkins.
Singing in Unison
I spoke with Symphonic Chorus soprano and marketing lead Emily Palmer to learn more about what makes this organization special, and what attracts singers to join in. She immediately noted the “warm and inviting” feeling and sense of community within the volunteer-driven group, as well as the leadership of Conductor Ryan Heller. “He is the heart of everything with his vision of music and the way he draws us in to the pieces,” she shared.
Heller moved to Austin from Portland, Ore. for the purpose of leading Chorus Austin. Since then, he has focused on nurturing the talent within each choral group, bringing new perspective to old works and curating unique pieces.
Many choir members grow up singing “Messiah,” and Chorus Austin performs it every year. By studying history and pulling together what Handel envisioned for the piece, Heller is able to give the chorus new perspective, beyond what’s notated on their score. This well-researched process keeps the music fresh for seasoned singers.
As for new work, soon Chorus Austin will premiere a commissioned piece by a composer from the northwest, Karen Thomas. Upcoming show, “On a Winter’s Eve,” is titled after the piece.
Earlier this season, the group performed a commissioned work by Donald Grantham. The powerful, 55-minute concert included eight movements featuring a full orchestra and soloists, and was entitled “The Contemplations of Hafiz.” Chorus Austin plans to add more custom pieces to their repertoire in the years to come.
Attending a Chorus Austin Performance
I asked Palmer who she usually sees attending Chorus Austin performances. She said the organization has a core group that comes to every show, and the annual “Sing-It-Yourself Messiah” always brings out fans. On that night, audience members can sing “Messiah” along with the choir by following the score. Heller says he can often pick out a few voices from the audience, and some guests even audition after experiencing the event.
But this show (which is in its 27th year) isn’t only for people who are familiar with the music. It provides an accessible introduction to choral music in a laid-back, festive atmosphere. Palmer hopes more young people will start coming to the shows once they realize how dynamic and powerful live choral music can be. She says people always leave in a “gloriously happy mood” after “Sing-It-Yourself Messiah”
For those hoping to see all three of the Chorus Austin groups together, “On a Winter’s Eve” (Dec. 17) is the one time of year you can catch the Youth Chorus, Chamber Ensemble and Symphonic Chorus at once. Hearing so many voices in one room and seeing the faces emote is a powerful experience that has entranced audiences for centuries.
It’s also worth noting that visitors receive a program with the text and translation of each piece at Chorus Austin performances. This allows listeners to understand each song.
Entering Chorus Austin’s 53rd Season
The future of Chorus Austin sounds bright. The organization is already planning next season, which will include a rare performance of Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti’s “Esther,” sung completely in Hebrew. This will be the first time the work is performed in Texas.
@MadameKLM wants to know:
Have you ever heard a 180-member choir live?