The Fort Worth Chorale, previously known as Schola Cantorum of Texas, has a long, rich history as one of Texas' premiere and longest running choral organizations.
Below is an article written by long-time choir member Betty Utter for the 25th Anniversary of the choir.
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THE SCHOLA EXPERIENCE: A 25 Year History
By Betty Utter, twenty-two year member
It was only natural that the man who founded and directed the Mastersinger Chorale - the choral counterpart to the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra - would want to do the same thing when he accepted the position as Director of Choral Activities at T.C.U. So it was that B. R. “Bev” Henson organized in 1962 a group of vocal musicians who were dedicated to the performance of chorale literature at the highest possible level. Those of us in the audience of the premiere concert saw 16 singers arranged in quartets who sang the a capella program with unique clarity and obvious enthusiasm. The artistic acceptance was immediate, although it would be several years before the city realized the remarkable music-making of the Schola Cantorum of Fort Worth.
Members were accepted only after audition or special invitation to participate on a one-season basis. Many singers were professional musicians; others exhibited particular interest combined with the necessary talent. They numbered between 35 and 40 depending upon the literature for the season. From its beginning the atmosphere was thoroughly professional. One arrived at rehearsal on time, with pencil in hand, vocally warmed-up and fearful of extraneous conversation except at breaks. We were there to work, to learn and to be part of a unique experience.
The music matched the atmosphere. When this writer entered the rehearsal room for the first time, it was in its second season and we immediately began to sight-read Schoenberg’s “Freide auf Erden”, a work of no small difficulty. During Henson’s tenure we would sing numerous works from the a capella repertoire where we received perhaps the greatest critical acclaim, yet the oratorios and cantatas with orchestra were evenings of musical “feasts” for singers and audience alike. It should be noted that all accompanied works were carefully true to the composer’s treatment and performed with the instruments and orchestral proportions indicated.
As members of the Schola Cantorum of Fort Worth we accepted a kind of rewarding anonymity, for the only time a name of the group appeared on the program, it was to signify a solo. All were volunteers to the cause of great music. The conductor was furnished by T.C.U. as were the concert and rehearsal halls and music library. Payment for the orchestras came largely from ticket sales and underwriting. Most of the solos were sung by members although occasionally there were guests such as Jack Coldiron, Desire Ligeti, Charles Nelson, Ira Schantz - each with unique vocal qualities. Among member soloists, many have careers in opera, choirs and as teachers of singing.
Literally translated, Schola Cantorum means “school of singing” and in this atmosphere we learned. Repertoire stretched from the Golden Age of Baroque and Renaissance to contemporary choral masterworks. Languages included French, German, Italian, Hebrew and Latin along with English. Before Henson’s resignation in 1978, major performance works included the “B minor Mass” and St. John’s and St. Matthew “Passions” by Bach, the “Requiems” of Verdi, Faure, Durufle and Brahms, Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and “Catulli Carmina,” Haydn’s “Creation,” Handel’s “Messiah,” Poulenc’s “Gloria” and “Stabat Mater,” Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” Mozart’s “Grand Mass in C minor,” Honneger’s “King David” and others. On more than one occasion we were afforded the expert guidance of Dr. Julius Herford whose expertise on style and performance of Bach was invaluable…a bonus of T.C.U.’s Institute of Advanced Choral Studies.
Under Henson’s baton, the group traveled primarily in Texas, singing with the Austin, San Antonio and Dallas Symphony Orchestras, presenting concerts throughout the state, and on one occasion were flown by private plane to El Paso for a concert sponsored by the plane’s owner. In 1971 we ventured into a lighter mode with An Evening of Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Tarrant County Convention Center underwritten by an arts patron. The broad spectrum of musical styles and ears were a happy challenge for Henson’s singers who in 1972 commissioned a work from Daniel Pinkham as dedication to his service to the community and to “Schola.” Henson’s resignation in 1973 left a void.
The transition from the Schola Cantorum of Fort Worth to the Schola Cantorum of Texas was not an easy one. The 1973-74 season, under the direction of T.C.U.’s new choral director, Terrance Anderson, ended “mid-stream” through mutual agreement and the final concert was ably saved with Charles Nelson as conductor. Then followed a season of guest conductors, only two of whom were contenders for the vacated position. By special request, another “evening with …” resulted in music by Lerner and Lowe, conducted by Leonard McCormick of Tarrant County Junior College whose expertise included productions of musical comedy. Other guests were Robert Burton of the Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Grant Williams of North Texas State University and Gary Ebensberger of the University of Texas at Arlington. It was a varied season from the orchestrally-accompanied Lerner and Lowe production to keyboard-accompanied to a cappella and included works by Bernstein and Stravinsky as well as the more traditional repertoire. At the end of the 1974-75 series a new conductor was chosen, Dr. Gary L. Ebensberger, U.T.A.’s Director of Choral Activities.
If the first 10 years of Schola Cantorum had been dynamically exhilarating and the next two a bit frustrating, Ebensberger’s conducting techniques had a calming influence. His forte was sheer “sound.” The musicianship was there, of course, but his philosophy had more to do with vocal techniques of the singers and the honing of a unified tone quality. Organizationally, the group had made major changes. Whereas the founder had made all decisions aided by a small invited “board,” a complete set of By-Laws were accepted, non-profit status requested and received, officers elected and a Board of Directors came into place. Since the membership included singers from a wide geographical area, the name was also expanded to the Schola Cantorum of Texas. Other problems to solve were the need for rehearsal and concert space, an accompanist and conductor to pay and a part time manager to coordinate. In the 1974 reorganization we voted to require a membership fee to help defray the costs, a decision upheld until last year, when it was decided that the cost of music and costume purchase was enough to ask of the volunteer choristers.
A word should certainly be said of the accompanists in Schola’s history for without them at rehearsals and some concerts, the process would have been impossible. Accomplished pianists such as Pat and Janet Aycock, Ladine Householder, Kim Dacus, Bruce Muskrat and now Dr. David Stokan have given not just their expert support but at time the very “glue” which holds any chorus together. Management has been equally diverse… and mostly volunteer. In the early days programs were designed by Judy Oelfke and printed at T.C.U. As greater demands for public relations were needed, this writer was responsible for press material and program layouts, an assignment which endured for nearly 15 years. Professional management was handled on a part-time basis by Carol Bremer, Bruce Muskrat, Ann Ebenseberger and Charles Miller. Only in more recent years has the job required greater time and dedication, now directed to Louise Van Tilburg.
One of the first things Ebensberger did to strengthen his musical forces was to instigate a Schola-sponsored annual Choral Workshop and for four years we had the advantage of working with Elaine Brown, William Hall, Lara Hoggard and in 1978 with Charles Nelson. These were open to all choral directors in the state and attendance ran from 45-60 participants.
Rehearsal space which had varied between T.C.U. and St. Andrew’s Catholic Church finally found a home at St. Stephen Presbyterian Fellowship Hall with a Christmas Concert given in the sanctuary each December as a Gift to the community and a way to express appreciation to our benefactor as well. Concerts which had rarely been done in pairs began to take place at both Ed Landreth and Irons Hall in Arlington, sometimes even in a Dallas location. Experiments were made with other halls with varying results. Perhaps the most satisfactory aesthetically is the great hall at the Kimbell Museum which continues to be a concert site when feasible.
With a strong and enthusiastic Board of Directors, the Schola Cantorum of Texas began to find border recognition both at home and farther afield. At home the group has been the guest chorus as well as the “core” chorus with the Fort Worth Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, the latter conducted by Dr. Ebensberger. With the Symphony, it has been featured in a concert version of “Porgy and Bess” and the Bernstein “Mass,” the latter featuring several Schola members as soloists. Schola has also appeared on the Cliburn Series in concert with the Annapolis Brass. Appearances at Mayfest and Oktoberfest were annual events until the advent in 1980 of the “Fifth of Schola,” a male quartet with a female accompanist, whose antics and performance flair have made an ideal promotional vehicle for the parent group.
As members of both the elected Board and the Schola, singers were more and more part of the business world, it became apparent that the Schola Cantorum of Texas was a viable product to market and represent the area. The first evidence of its potential came when it was invited to participate in the Festival of the Mass with Robert Shaw held in San Francisco, the first out-of-state chorus so honored. The year was 1982 and marked the beginning of rapid acknowledgment as a musical organization of more than local importance. In June 1983 the Schola Cantorum performed at the Worms International Choral Festival and Symposium, singing also in Salzburg and Speyer. The event commemorated the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther. 1985 will long be remembered for Schola’s debut in Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center with the Honorable Jim Wright narrating Thompson’s “The Testament of Freedom”. In the summer of 1987 Schola toured England after singing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. What can top these is anybody’s guess.
Most important is the fact that each season Schola Cantorum of Texas can be counted on to produce at least four concerts on its series as it has continually done since its inception. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra has found their professional choir in Schola whether it be as a feature or a core group. Having been taken into the Arts Council as a funded group in 1978, a professional staff consisting of Conductor, Staff Accompanist and Business Manager have been able to bring the operation into better focus. The acquiring of an office in Scott Theatre also helps in the day-to-day business. Funding continues to be important as it is with all other arts organizations, but the ingenuity of the Schola Board and members has so far “kept the wolf from the door.” This Spring a unique fundraiser took place in the T & P Building which offered members a chance to relax into the less taxing techniques of musical comedy excerpts. Under the direction of Myron Ice, “Show and Sell” better than tripled the expectations. The Fifth of Schola presents an annual benefit and an occasional outside concert by the full chorus is yet another source.
From the beginning the Schola Cantorum has striven for excellence. Reviewers have more often than not been caught up in the process… “It is not often that one hears choral performances of the calibre of Schola Cantorum of Fort Worth… there were moments that almost blinded with the beauty.”… Leonard Eureka (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)… “Once in a while a reviewer affords himself the pleasure of closing the notebook and listening to music on a non-analytical plane.”… Robert Douglass (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)… “Schola once more proved the adage that the human voice is the perfect instrument.”…Michale Fleming (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)… And the quotes could go on and on.
The significance of Schola’s 25-year endurance lies in what it has come to mean to its members past and present and to the community it so beautifully represents. Much of the credit must go to its two prime conductors, “Bev” Henson and Gary Ebensberger for their inspiration and guidance. Without community support this anniversary would not have been reached. But it is to the singers themselves that the heroes’ medals should go, for without the 295 former members plus the current singers, no music would have been heard. As a great conductor once said, “My baton makes no music, only the musicians.” Happy 25th Birthday, Schola, and many more!
Schola Cantorum Alumni