With the overall success of Simon Housner’s Sacred Heart Concert Series in Oberlin, it’s hard to imagine that he had actually quit playing cello at one point in his life. A native of Philadelphia, Housner was raised in a musical family — both of his parents are pianists who met at Oberlin. But it wasn’t until he was in high school that Housner truly became passionate about the cello.
A pivotal moment in Housner’s career was when he took part in the National Youth Orchestra (NYO-USA) for three summers in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Through that experience, he worked with conductors Christoph Eschenbach, Valery Gergiev, Marin Alsop, and Michael Tilson Thomas, and got to perform in many international cities. Countries he visited through NYO included Denmark, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, Taiwan, China, and South Korea.
His absolute favorite performance was in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, where he was captivated by the names of legendary composers inscribed on the walls of the venue. He found his experience with NYO to be rewarding because it gave him “a picture of what it was like to be an orchestral musician.” And of course, Housner didn’t miss a beat when given the opportunity to talk about how amazing it was to wear those iconic red pants.
Housner spent the other months of his junior and senior years of high school commuting by bus to Juilliard, where he studied with Darrett Adkins every other week. His positive experience with the cello teacher led to his decision to come to Oberlin Conservatory, where Adkins is a faculty member.
Since coming to Oberlin, Housner has attended Sacred Heart Catholic Church and frequently plays for services. In a recent interview with The Oberlin Review, he explained how the Sacred Heart Concert Series (SHCS) was started:
“One night I just woke up at 3 in the morning due to a nosebleed, and I was reminiscing about these musical festivals, and I was like, ‘You know what, why don’t I just start a concert series?’ Why not bring this kind of atmosphere — this atmosphere of making music for fun, instead of playing music as a chore — why not bring it into the community? You have this freedom to play, to program. It’s the kind of music that’s dear to your heart, and it’s music that you’re interested in sharing.”
From there, Housner worked with church music director Carl Lee and Father David Trask to launch the series. The first concert served as his sophomore recital, for which approximately 150 people were in attendance. He organized three other concerts that year, and the series has actually picked up since COVID-19.
Last fall, SHCS put on five concerts, continuing to foster its mission to better connect the Oberlin community and conservatory. Due to the pandemic, with masking and distancing in place, fewer people were able to attend in-person concerts — however, the option to view each performance via live stream has kept the overall audience numbers consistent.
This spring, the series hosted seven concerts, with programs ranging from the Bach Cello Suites to brass ensemble performances. One event that deserves extra recognition was ChamberFeast! That April 11 concert took community engagement a step further, raising money for Oberlin Weekday Community Meals to help address the issue of food insecurity in the area.
ChamberFeast! featured three pieces — and each performer included a family recipe in the program distributed to the audience. Housner created a GoFundMe page to share at the event, which attracted 40 in-person attendees in addition to the sizable online audience.
The goal of $500 was exceeded, raising a total of over $575. “Everyone has been very generous during the pandemic,” Housner noted. Due to the success of a concert in this format, he plans to organize similar events in the future.
Despite how fulfilling this work has been, Housner confessed that a lot of the logistical and organizational tasks fall on his shoulders. Being responsible for the writing of emails, recruiting performers, making and designing programs, setting concert dates, organizing rehearsal time, and creating and editing video profiles for each performer, he has realized how much of a commitment running SHCS is on top of being a full-time student. Although he recognizes that he’s learning a lot of valuable life skills, his goal for the upcoming semester is to find “the dream team” — a group of people he would work closely with to help more evenly distribute the workload.
As for the future of SHCS, it’s pretty open-ended. Housner explained that his connection to the church prior to starting the concert series allowed him to act as a bridge between the conservatory and community — which is an aspect of SHCS that he doesn’t want to be lost after he graduates. But he’s hopeful that he may be able to start another concert series wherever he goes after Oberlin.
Another way in which Housner has found this concert series to be unique is through musicians’ connections with the audience, which he feels are much more intimate than those in the traditional concert hall. In his interview with The Oberlin Review, he talked about one of his most memorable experiences with SHCS, the 2019 holiday concert. “The entire audience stood up and began singing Christmas carols, and we improvised along with them. That is a completely different experience from a concert hall. I realized that the essence of music is moldable because it takes a different form depending on the space where it is delivered.”
Whether it’s creating music together with the audience, raising money for community organizations, or simply giving concert attendees access to a memorable Sunday afternoon filled with music, it’s no question that Housner has already made a profound impact on the people of Oberlin. By fusing music with community, Housner and his colleagues have contributed to the quality of life in the city.