On a lovely, sunny day in September, I met Dennis Houser, founding and current Artistic Director of the Prescott Chorale, and his wife, Kay, for lunch at the rooftop patio of the Raven Cafe on Cortez Street downtown. Dennis is quite a handsome man, whose speaking voice is deep and mellifluous, and who carries himself with an air of quiet strength. His wife, Kay, whom he affectionately refers to as “Katie”, is warm, friendly and vivacious, and, as we talked, she and I found we had a great many things in common!
After we had placed our orders and seated ourselves at a table with a wonderful view of Thumb Butte, I asked Dennis where he was born and raised. He smiled and said, “Those are TWO questions! I was born in Indiana, and moved to Southern California when I was two years old.” He told me he lived in SoCal until he and Kay moved to Prescott in 2011.
Dennis attended college in Southern California. “I went to Junior College, “ he said, “because I was much too immature at the time to go to University after I graduated from High School.”
“I cannot imagine that is true!”, I exclaimed.
“Oh yes,” he insisted. “I was much different then than I am now. I was singing at Disneyland at the time. The fellow who was in charge of talent there also taught at Chapman College…now Chapman University… in Orange, California. He asked me to go to Chapman to study so I did. I got my Bachelors and Masters degrees there.”
I asked him if he had any specific voice teacher who influenced his vocal style and technique.
“I took only one semester of voice in my entire life.”
“So you are essentially self-taught,” I said, adding with a bit of envy, “Some singers just seem to have correct vocal technique naturally.”
“Well…..the Lord just gave me that gift, I guess,” he said. “I later taught singing in Middle School, High School and College for a number of years in Orange County. Then I left the teaching profession in 1978 and went into helping schools raise money. I was a professional fundraiser for Reader’s Digest. I did that for 30 years or so and then continued my professional career singing with the Civic Chorale.”
“Did you always want to be a classical singer?” I asked. “That is all I know how to sing,” he replied with a smile.
Kay said, “Dennis didn’t tell you about conducting the Orange County Master Chorale. He also sang with Opera Pacific.”
“I wasn’t a soloist,” he quickly said. “I sang in the opera chorus, which I loved. We sang a lot of Mozart and Puccini.
“Which choral groups were your influences as you were forming your own ideas of what a chorale of your own might be like?”
“Of course I was living in Southern California, and the great choral ensembles then were the Roger Wagner Chorale, which became the LA Master Chorale. Also the Robert Shaw Chorale.”
“My father had recordings of those ensembles that I listened to when I was growing up in Alabama,” I told him.
“And for BACH,” he then added, “there was the preeminent Bach Chorale expert, Helmut Reilling.”
“When Kay and I moved to Prescott in 2011, we both sang in the Yavapai Master Chorale.” He went on to say that later on, when he founded the Prescott Chorale, “I started the Chorale without a penny in the bank and this is now our fourth season!” And Kay added, “They are getting better all the time!”
I asked him about his artistic vision for the Prescott Chorale. “I like to do pieces that have never been done here in Prescott. It is a little bit more trepidatious, but I know my singers. I know what they can do!”
“When you are auditioning singers for your group, are you looking for a particular sound or type of voice?” I asked him. “For a chorale member, “ he said, “I am looking for a sound that is ‘teachable.’ But when it is a soloist, I am looking for a very specific sound (for each solo).”
I could write another article just about Dennis’ wife, Kay. What a fascinating woman she is! In her life so far, she has been an accountant, a pilot, and…after going back to medical school at age 42, she became a Gynecological Surgeon, and practiced for 15 years! She also studied classical piano beginning at the age of five, and, in addition to singing soprano in the Prescott Chorale, often plays organ at St. Lukes Episcopal Church, where her husband is the Choirmaster.
They are deeply grateful to the friends they have made here in Prescott. Shortly after they moved to Prescott, they had a terrible fire at their home, and lost part of it due to a badly installed Chimney Flue. Smoke damaged the rest of the house. Friends from their congregation at St. Lukes offered them the use of their guest house at their home in Skull Valley, and even moved their two Quarter Horses there, also building a fence for their dogs. Dennis and Kay lived there over four months while there own home was being repaired. They had a very rough year that year, but thanks to dear friends, and their deep faith, they came through it all.
“The Lord never gives us more than we can handle,” said Dennis. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else or being WITH anybody else except Katie,” he said, gazing at his wife and reaching for her hand.
Finally, I asked Dennis what he would like people to know about him.
“I would like them to know how deeply Katie and I feel about our music. Without our audiences and their support, we would not be able to do this. And we are so grateful to them.”
I invite you to go to prescottchorale.org to find out more about this wonderful organization founded by Dennis Houser. And don’t miss their all Bach concert this coming Saturday October 6 at St. Luke’s, accompanied by the fine musicians of the Arizona Philharmonic in their first collaboration. I hope to see you there!!!!