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Aug 19, 2013 | Carol E. Barnwell

Cathedral’s Robert Simpson Hits a High Note


[Diolog Magazine] 

CEB: Where are you from and how did you end up in Houston?
RS: Coming to Houston and Christ Church Cathedral is one of the most unexpected, and best, things that ever happened to me. Born in suburban New Jersey (yes, there are suburban parts of New Jersey) and educated at Brown, my early dreams were to have a New York City church. But upon returning to the States from Germany in 1974, I received a call to the Episcopal Cathedral in Orlando, Florida, where I spent five very happy years that led to 15 more at St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta. Then, out of the blue, I received a phone call from Dr. Clyde Holloway, who was leaving his position as Organist-Choirmaster at Christ Church Cathedral to devote his full energies to heading the Organ Department at Rice University’s Shepherd School. He encouraged me to look into the position, and after a visit and meeting Dean Walter Taylor, I realized that my time on the East Coast was coming to an end. I wanted to be a part of the exciting ministry of this Cathedral. Within two weeks of arrival I had bought cowboy boots. I’ve never looked back.

CEB: Who inspired your love of music? 
RS: My earliest memories of music are entwined with the Wurlitzer reed organ my Simpson grandparents had in their living room. Photos confirm my childhood memory that it was the size of a small SUV because it had reeds, not electronics inside. My grandparents lived nearby and often after Sunday dinners at their home I watched in fascination as my grandfather played hymns of his youth (“The Old Rugged Cross,” “I come to the garden alone”). By the time I was five or six, I was “improvising” my own organ music and holding services patiently attended by my grandmother. I would play the prelude, preach a sermon, take up an offering and then play the postlude. Then we’d turn on the TV to watch Hopalong Cassidy. 


CEB:  Would you share an early memory of being touched by a piece of music?  
RS:  What a wonderful question. I haven’t thought of this in years but my earliest memory of being overcome by music was when I was in first grade. Like many kids of my generation I had a library of Little Golden Books and some came with records. One day in my room I randomly put a record on my record player and as the music began (the Andante from Eine kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart), my eye fell on a sketch of a lone Civil War soldier standing sentry duty. Somehow the gentle melody and that image melded in my mind, and I was filled with a lonely sadness for the sentry, a feeling I can summon even today by thinking back. But then in my first year of piano a year later I became so taken with playing “The Happy Farmer” by Robert Schumann (my first piece by a “real’ composer) that my parents begged me to stop. 

CEB:  What led you to be a church musician?
RS:  Once my love of the organ became full blown in seventh grade (the start of my two-year campaign to be allowed to switch from piano to organ), I never doubted that I wanted to be a church organist. By that time I had stopped “playing church” with my grandmother and a real calling was at work. As I approached college, my parents expressed their strong reservation to music as my career path, and so we agreed that I would get an undergraduate liberal arts education and then pursue music in graduate school if I still felt so inclined. And that’s what I did. I had the great fortune of finding a superb organ teacher in college who helped me cover enough ground to hold my own in graduate school auditions and I went on to the School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary in New York, a legendary place no longer in operation that had produced generations of this country’s leading church musicians including Gerre and Judith Hancock, and Fred Swann who served both Riverside Church and The Crystal Cathedral!  It was a magical two years followed by two more in Germany.

CEB:  How is your own faith woven into your profession?  
RS:  I believe that music is a fundamental human expression that can tap into our deepest emotions. It is for this reason that it has been a part of worship throughout history. Below the level of harmony, counterpoint, structure and instrumentation, music touches us at our core. Our strongest emotions, be they happy or sad, bring us to a point where words fail and only music remains. We hum, we whistle, we sing “Happy Birthday,” “Old Lang Syne,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  This is not a conditioned response or social convention. This comes out of our very soul. To recognize this is to recognize God within each of us. My lucky life is being spent connecting people to this source of life. 

CEB:  For the novice, what should we look for in a worship service from the music?  
RS:  One characteristic of a great actor like Merle Streep is the degree to which she hides all signs of “acting.”  The same is true of music in worship at its best. It should not draw attention to itself. In fact, music should be a mirror with no image of its own. Its job is to reflect the themes of the appointed lessons, the liturgical season and the worship space. When this happens, music becomes a powerful and even thrilling element in worship. And the compositions themselves, regardless of their idiom, must be well written and thoroughly prepared. In the words of the renowned American choral conductor Robert Shaw, “The dove does not descend to a dirty branch.”  

CEB:  How did you come to found The Houston Chamber Choir?  
RS:  I came to Houston with the hope of founding a professional choir. I love the wealth of sacred music I do at the Cathedral, but I wanted to tackle secular works, too. With the blessing of Dean Walter Taylor, and my wife, Marianna, I did just that in 1996. The past 17 years have seen the Houston Chamber Choir grow from a fledgling group to a recognized leader among American professional choirs with a creative, administrative staff and singers on a par with the best anywhere. Our most recent CD was identified as a “must have” by Fanfare Magazine. Throughout the years Cathedral parishioners and Deans Taylor, Reynolds and Thompson have been unfailing in their support. Combining the Chamber Choir and the Cathedral with my position as Lecturer of Church Music at The Shepherd School of Music gives me an enormously satisfying range of professional opportunities.

CEB:  What work have you done in the church?
RS:  I was appointed to the Standing Commission on Church Music in the early 1980s,  an especially exciting time. The Hymnal 1982 had just come out, and there was a need for diocesan workshops around the country to introduce new hymns and service music. I traveled a lot and particularly enjoyed teaming up with the Rt. Rev. Judson Child, then Bishop of Atlanta. I was also charged with leading the first committee to plan a Hispanic hymnal and to undertake a national study of the Episcopal Church’s lay retirement plan that eventually led to a revamping of the pension formula. But perhaps the most fun of all was being invited onto the editorial board of Lift Every Voice and Sing II, An African American Hymnal. What an education I received and what wonderful people I got to know.