To be clear, Betsy Cook Weber (bless her) hasn’t passed away. She simply stepped down from the position at the end of the 2021-22 Season to focus on the internationally-acclaimed choral program at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music. A lofty job, indeed, and one that deservedly has earned her full-time attention.
With her departure from the Houston Symphony comes a new reign, and Hightower is the perfect fit for the role.
“First, I should say, I’ve known Betsy since the 1980s. I have admired her work, especially her work at University of Houston. I even knew her when she was a high school director back at Memorial High when I was a college student. Over the years, we’ve become good friends,” Hightower said. “I’ve had several conversations with her about the position, the work and the organization. I have tremendous respect for the eight seasons that she served as the director of the chorus, the high standard at which the chorus sang and the operation she ran.”
The praises have continued to flow from Hightower regarding his new posting in Cook Weber’s footsteps.
“The organization is in really fine shape. I earned this job because of her encouragement and recommendation, so I’m nothing but excited,” he said.
He also is entering the organization with a laundry list of his own accolades.
Hightower is currently the Director of Choral Studies at the University of North Texas, where he leads the master’s and doctoral programs in choral conducting and oversees a comprehensive choral program of eight ensembles. Hightower also joins the ranks of the other big news happening at Houston Symphony, the formal introduction of its new Music Director Juraj Valcuha, and the opening performance will be ‘Live from Jones Hall: Verdi Requiem.’ Joining onstage are soprano Ana María Martínez, mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya, tenor Jonathan Tetelman and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy.
As the Houston Symphony describes the performance, “Verdi’s Messa da Requiem is universally considered the most dramatic and operatic of settings of the Catholic Requiem mass. Scored for four soloists, double choir, and orchestra, Verdi wrote it in memory of the Italian poet Lorenzo Manzoni, whom Verdi greatly admired. The work is particularly famous for the plaintive, lyrical beauty of the tenor aria ‘Ingemisco,’ and even more for the chorus’s fiercely dramatic, fiery musical depiction of the apocalypse, ‘Dies Irae.’”
It promises to be an exciting opportunity to show off the Houston Symphony Chorus’ chops, and naturally it will showcase the world-class orchestra during a composition that blends biblical references with musical dexterity.
It’s a challenge that Hightower isn’t afraid of, and he knows the Houston Symphony Chorus will masterfully demonstrate the vocal gymnastics required to match Verdi’s original intents.
“It’s not a soft beginning at all. There are lots of other choral orchestral works that would have been an easier beginning. Most people think of this Verdi work as an opera. It’s a huge thing for the choir,” Hightower said. “The audience can expect that this is a work of tremendous, dramatic impact because Verdi was primarily an opera composer. We have an enormous orchestra, a large chorus and a quartet of soloists. It’s written in a sacred, liturgical form, and yet, every note of it is dripping with opera.”
Hightower feels, though, that Verdi’s “Requiem” will establish the benchmark for what he wants to achieve with the orchestra and with the chorus.
“I think it has the unique potential to bring people together…people who love symphonic repertoire, people who love the choral idiom, and people who are turned on by opera…it really is an opera without staging, so it makes a big statement to start,” Hightower said.
His expectations only go higher from there.
“I’m thrilled to begin with this piece. It’s a heck of a thing,” Hightower said. “It’s a thrill to think that I might be able to have my own chapter, if you will, of bringing my own fingerprints and my own perspective on things to the Houston Symphony Chorus.”
This concert will be only the start for Hightower and for the chorus as they both endeavor toward great aspirations, and his heart couldn’t be more evident.
“I have a real passion to encourage and inspire choral musicians. It’s a real privilege for me to hold this position. I hope to utilize my years of experience and insight to encourage and inspire others,” he said.
The Houston Symphony presents Verdi’s Requiem at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For tickets or more information, visit houstonsymphony.org or call 713-224-7575. $29 – 124. Livestream tickets available for $20 on Saturday.