Houston Church Musicians as Cultural Pioneers

By Don Looser, PhD

The 1930’s in Houston were explosive years of musical activity. Most professional musicians combined work in church leadership roles, vocal performance, teaching, accompanying, resident movie-theater orchestras, dance bands, and non-musical activity to survive financially. Hermann Weiss was a percussionist and florist; Jesus Gutierrez operated a print shop and played bass. Joe Stokes was President of the musician’s local and a truck farmer. Few musicians devoted their attention solely to musical pursuits. To provide employment for more musicians in the 1930’s, the Metropolitan movie theater contracted its orchestra for only three weeks each month, leaving the fourth week’s employment available for other musicians. Times were hard!

Mrs. John Wesley “Ma” Graham had moved to Houston in 1910 and was the choir director of the First Methodist Church and a local voice teacher with a weekly radio program of student performances. In 1930, Mrs. Graham set out to establish an opera company for Houston. She traveled to Italy and returned with maestro Uriel Nespoli, determined to mount a production of Aida in Houston. She formed the Houston Civic Opera Company with the attendant need to develop its own orchestra. The Houston Symphony Orchestra had been dormant through the World War I years up to the 1930’s, but a Houston Philharmonic Ensemble had been formed in 1923 by Victor Allesandro. Additionally, Walter Welschoff organized a Houston Symphonic Club in 1930 and held his first benefit concert at the City Auditorium. Meanwhile, Ellison Van Hoose, Choir Director of the First Presbyterian Church, announced formation of a fourth symphonic organization, the Van Hoose Little Symphony. Van Hoose was a former leading tenor of the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York. A local music critic wrote:

Not since the earlier halcyon days when Mrs. Grunewald held sway with theHouston Philharmonic Society in 1872 has there been so much musical activity.Almost overnight, Houston has two large and one small symphony, two large church choirs dedicated to annual oratorio, a proposed civic opera company, a studio opera company, and a string quartet.

Ma Graham persuaded the Welschoff Symphonic Club to merge with her Nespoli aggregation and secured the sponsorship of the Houston Symphony Orchestra Association for her first concert in 1931 at the Palace Theater. Van Hoose secured the sponsorship of local impresario Edna Saunders, while Allesandro scheduled his first concert in the Scottish Rite Auditorium. Welschoff ultimately formed a Junior Symphony organization.

Ma Graham announced a production of Aida with costumes from the Metropolitan Opera, a New York conductor, and an invitation to perform at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Now called the Texas Grand Opera Company, the Graham company mounted two performances of Aida in Chicago accompanied by the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra. Governor and Mrs. Ferguson traveled from Austin for the first performance which reportedly boasted a 900-member cast and a real elephant! Mrs. Graham was forever in the hearts of her fellow Texans.

Mrs. Graham directed the First Methodist Church choir for twenty years. She was President of the Texas Music Teachers Association and Music Director of the Houston Fair and Exposition. She founded the Houston Civic Opera Company and the Texas Grand Opera Company. She brought Uriel Nespoli to Houston who ultimately became the first conductor of the reorganized Houston Symphony. She was exemplary of the early vision for music by many pioneering Houstonians. In 1956, she was honored by the Harris County Tuberculosis Association for raising enough money with a production of Faust to purchase the first X-ray equipment for the Association. There had never been anyone quite like her.

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