1962 was a year of many firsts: John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth aboard Friendship 7, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single NBA basketball game, Bob Dylan released his debut album, the Space Needle in Seattle opened to the public for the first time during the World’s Fair, the first Wal-Mart store opened, the first commercial communications satellite was launched into orbit by AT&T, and The Loco-Motion by Little Eva was ranked #1 song of the year. It was also the first year of the Fort Worth Chorale, Schola Cantorum and, for that, we will always be indebted to Dr. Bev Henson!
There weren’t many civic choruses in 1962. Our research finds that the Fort Worth Chorale is the oldest, continuously-operating, 501c3 choir in Texas. It started small – there were 22 singers in the first concert in October, 1963. In the early years, concerts were held in TCU’s Ed Landreth Auditorium, and then in the Fort Worth Convention Center when it opened in 1968. Fundraisers were held to be able to sing major works with orchestra, and many singers would drive long distances (or fly in!) for rehearsals. Dr. Henson wasn’t compensated for his role as Conductor and, as it is today, neither were the singers. They all came together for the love of singing and to perform beautiful music for the community. What a gift the choir has been to Fort Worth and it’s singers for almost 60 years!
Nora Henson, one of Bev and Evelyn Henson’s two daughters, shares that the choir was started by musical friends sitting around their Fort Worth living room. At that time, Dr. Henson was building an outstanding choral program at TCU, and was also the choir director at University Christian Church. Nora remembers that their home was usually filled with choral directors and college students. On Monday nights after “Schola” (as it was referred to then), singers would often gather in their home with Pizza Hut take out- when “take out” was new, too. Nora said she and her sister, Evelyn Ann, always looked forward to cold pizza for breakfast on Tuesday mornings, and that it’s still easy for her to “sleep through anything” because of those late-night, lively gatherings.
Three singers that were in the choir with Dr. Henson in the 1960’s were kind to share some of their memories with me: Pat Atkinson Leito (Soprano), J.R. Peacock (Tenor) and Carol Pyle (Alto).
“Going to rehearsal under Bev was the highlight of my week”, said Pat Atkinson Leito. “After teaching choir and orchestra at Paschal High School all day, it was my pleasure to attend on Monday evenings on the second floor of the TCU fine arts building. Whatever the day had been, I looked forward to spending the evening with Schola.
Rehearsals with Bev were intense, productive, challenging and, at the same time, pleasant and enjoyable. He kept you on your toes with cajoling, humor and always with the promise that ‘the fun comes as the result of knowing you have done your best’. His rehearsals were a class in choral conducting. He taught while he rehearsed. You learned as he rehearsed. Successful performances depended on giving attention to Bev and remembering the marvelous details he shared in rehearsal. He covered the gamut of literature and styles with polish.
I’m also personally grateful for the solo opportunities I had while singing in Schola, for the pleasure of having Nora in my choir for two years, and for the times Bev came to Paschal to clinic or be a guest conductor at one of our concerts.”
J.R. Peacock joined the choir in 1964 and said that some of his fondest memories center around those rehearsals and concerts with Dr. Henson. “He and my family were close friends for many years, and I was honored to sing with him in Schola Cantorum and at University Christian. His daughters often cared for my daughters. There is a free-hand pencil drawing - done by Evelyn Ann about 50 years ago - of my older daughter, Bonnie, now deceased, on my wall to this day.
Bev could elicit a tone from a sometimes motley crew that was unmatched in depth and clarity. Even as singers would come and go, that quality remained.”
Carol Pyle first met Dr. Henson when he guest conducted a Region I Concert Choir during her first year of teaching in the Texas Panhandle. “He lit up the kids in those rehearsals! He engaged us directors, too. At lunches and suppers that weekend, he was infectious – funny and fun to be with!
Two years later, when Mike and I moved back to the metroplex, I joined Schola Cantorum (‘School of Singing’). The choir was composed of mostly semi-professional, volunteer singers – many of whom were choir directors in schools and churches themselves. At that time, our members drove from as far away as Stephenville and Oklahoma to rehearse at St. Stephen Presbyterian from 7:00-10:00pm on Monday nights. Often, many of us gathered afterwards to sit with Bev and his wife, Evelyn (a Soprano in the chorus), for coffee and late-night food at nearby Olde South Pancake House. Bev regaled with stories and enthralled with endlessly entertaining information about repertoire, composers, the music publishing industry, orchestral conducting and related topics.
Even though he was internationally recognized as both a choral and orchestral conductor – and the editor of a publisher’s choral series – many summers found him studying with someone else around the world, gaining more expertise for something he wanted to know more about or would soon conduct.
The choir’s repertoire consisted of masterworks and significant music from medieval through contemporary styles. He even attracted new composers to submit works for consideration and premieres. Sitting in his rehearsals was a master class every week, especially for those of us who also conducted. My own rural high school Soprano section complained every Tuesday that I was a lot more demanding of them – and it was true! Monday night cleaned out my ears and made me realize how important my Soprano section’s tone quality and intonation were to the audience’s overall perception of my choir. Prior to that, I often focused on my Altos (guess what part I sang!).
Exacting? Yes! And you’d happily follow him off a cliff, if he’d asked it! His own devotion to the highest standard of quality – for the love of the singing arts and the great choral music we performed – was matched by his shared love of us all, and we knew it.”
Over the years, the choir has been re-branded, but Dr. Henson’s devotion, and that of each of our conductors since, has been the legacy of the Fort Worth Chorale, Schola Cantorum. If you ask our singers today what was the “best of” in 1962, I have no doubt many would say, “Dr. Henson’s vision”.
If you’d like to know more about B.R. Henson and the impact he had on the larger choral community, I invite you to visit: https://www.tcda.net/assets/Lestweforget/b.%20r.%20_bev_%20henson.pdf
Thank you, Dr. Henson! Our choir continues to thrive because you built such a strong foundation and loved it from the start!