A Saturday night at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church. The singers of Conspirare walk out to stand surrounding the packed church pews of the audience. The women are wearing coordinated green, blue, red, orange and purple shawls over their black concert garb.
They open their mouths and the sound is so clear, sharp, beautiful, and divine that, I swear to God, I almost peed my pants. My friend told me later that he almost cried. A goofy, happy grin spreads across my face.
After the first act of the concert finishes, at the start of the intermission, my roommate turns to me and says defiantly, “Dare you to find something to critique about that!”
I couldn’t really.
Legacy of sound
Conspirare was founded in 1991 and, with the leadership of artistic director Craig Hella Johnson, they have come to be one of the pre-eminent choirs in the world, though they still call Austin their home. They have been five-time Grammy nominated (but who’s counting really?), and in 2009 were showcased in a national PBS television special. Their yearly “Christmas at The Carillon” event, which they have recording and releasing CDs of since 2005, is already sold out for this December.
They’re currently touring lower Normandy, France, showcasing American music as one of twelve vocal ensembles that have been invited from around the world to make an appearance at the biannual Polyfollia Festival in Paris.
This season marks their twentieth anniversary. So far, since starting their Legacy of Sound campaign last year, with a goal of $2.2 million dollars, they’ve raised $1.7 million (you should see in my notes where I wrote “1.7 freaking million dollars!”).
An American romantic
An American Romantic is a fitting title for Conspirare’s most recently released album focused on music by Samuel Barber, an emotive, romantic composer in the 20th century, an era where unabashed lyricism was old-fashioned and out of place. Yet Barber’s legacy remains in the classical canon. On the week of its release, An American Romantic charted at number ten on the Billboard Concert Music CD charts.
The album features stunning performances of Barber’s choral classics, such as Agnus Dei and Sure on this shining night. But perhaps the highlight is a brand new arrangement of Barber’s song cycle The Lovers, based on Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda, for a smaller chamber orchestra, by Oregon-based composer Robert Kyr.
Barber composed The Lovers during a time of great turmoil in his life, at the end of a relationship (with composer Gian Carlo Menotti) and after the failure of a big commission (Antony and Cleopatra at the Metropolitan Opera).
“Given this context, “ writes Kyr in the program notes (which are translated in both Italian and German, anticipating the choir’s global reach), “One better understands why Barber chose Neruda’s passionate song of despair, and why the music connects us so vividly to a situation that no one can escape. In some sense, our greatest loves remain with us equally and always – those we kept and those we lost. In this regard, Barber’s musical approach to the text ultimately helps us to heal our losses for the purpose of more fully experiencing the totality of love in all of its joys and sorrows.”
The standout moment for me was the instrumental “Prelude” leading into the solo baritone “Body of a Woman.” The timing, the weaving of the lines and the central motive are so clear, intimate, and essential. It feels perhaps more physical and tangible than the original arrangement. This sparser texture continues throughout the cycle.
One of the things Conspirare prides and markets themselves on is their commitment to diverse “collage-style” programming. A typical Conspirare program, like the Signature Conspirare concert I attended that Saturday night, will feature arrangements of African American spirituals side-by-side with Dolly Parton, Eliza Gilkyson, Eric Whitacre, Stephen Sondheim and a brand-new commission. It will have music for soloists, for a capella choir, and for choir with piano accompaniment.
“From the beginning, I have been interested in having Conspirare explore and perform a broad repertoire,” says artistic director Craig Hella Johnson. “I've said many times that, as an ensemble, I want us to have one foot firmly planted in the great canon of choral music (because we love it and it is where we come from!) and the other foot firmly planted in the realm of all things new and unusual for us.”
The program read that pieces to be performed would be “selected from the following,” a method of keeping the concert poised but still fresh that worked very nicely, much the way that a band goes into a show with a set-list but lets the mood of the night, and the audience, set the pace. Maybe if orchestras did a similar thing it could keep the concert hall a little more interesting.
“I'm very interested in creating concert events in which we can really make connection between audience and performers. This can take a thousand different forms, but for me it is really about listening, both inside and outside. To what music do we feel led to from within, what do we love; and what from outside of ourselves guides and shapes our creative choices. We are a part of a vibrant, engaging world. I want our shared musical experiences to be tuned in to the flow of life.”
The big centerpiece performance of the Signature Conspirare concert were two premieres by once Butler School of Music faculty member, composer Kevin Puts (perhaps one of the most dashing composers I have ever met), who has recently been decked out by two fancy awards: a shiny new Pulitzer and Prix de Rome.
“If I Were a Swan” is an inspired setting of the poem by the same name by Felda Brown, Kevin Puts’s aunt. Using tasteful word-painting, including a really cool repeating minimal motor, which sounded way more like electronically manipulating glitching than live vocals and an inspired setting of the words “and I would be exactly where I am,” that repeat like the chorus of a pop song. I would love to hear this piece again.
To Touch the Sky is a larger song cycle inspired by a suggestion from Craig Hella Johnson to explore the idea of the “divine feminine,” which Kevin Puts took to heart using texts by only female poets for the cycle, with help from his aunt Felda Brown. The standout movement was movement five, in the middle, a setting of Emily Bronte’s “At Castle Wood.” Much like “If I Were a Swan,” I would love to hear that movement again.
“When I was first in conservatory I was trying to figure out ‘my voice,’” said Kevin Puts in September 28th’s pre-concert talk (which proved to me, by the way, that apparently these pre-concert talks are actually working, because two of the old ladies in the audience asked questions based on things they had learned from composers at previous pre-concert talks!). “In Mozart’s day there was just one thing you could write and he just happened to write that better than anyone else. Now there’s minimalism, spectralism, neoromanticism, etc. I’ve since given up on that. I learned that if you just write music you’ll eventually write yourself into who you are.“
I have to say, Conspirare’s arrangements of spirituals and Puts’s composition using texts by all female poets aroused the radical minority-rights feminist in me, a bit, to ask some questions. Is this a part of a conscious decision to bring minority and female presence into the concert hall? Or is this a form of cultural appropriation, a long-standing tradition in the field of classical music (George Gershwin, Debussy)? Also, how acceptable is it to group "female poets" into a category? Is this another example of a way that we marginalize and categorize women, or how we essentialize the African American experience?
I get the feeling that Conspirare is coming at these issues from the right place. Hell, at least they’re coming at these issues at all, which is more that can be said about most classical institutions. But I still think it’s important to explore these questions.
“Growing up, I felt challenged by the very dogmatic way in which strict lines were drawn by some between what was considered art music and what was considered popular music, what was sacred and secular, etc.” says Craig Hella Johnson. “I love dancing on these perceived borders. We have been mining these borders for some time and we find the yield pretty rich and wonderful. . . and sometimes it's just fun.”
The role of a choir
Conspirare is one of the few choirs I've encountered that isn't affiliated with a church or a university. I asked Craig why such autonomy might be valuable and he responded, “One of the advantages can be a tremendous freedom of artistic expression. We are constantly in the process of creating and refreshing our artistic values, reflecting on what is important to us and what feels like it has currency. Because we are supported by individuals who connect with this music, we feel a strong bond with them.”
“Of course,” Craig continued, “a disadvantage of not being affiliated with an institution is that there is no financial safety net. We exist and make music because people choose to support us and engage with us. It keeps us in a dynamic relationship with our listeners, which I love.”
Which got me thinking about the space that choirs fill in our lives. I mean, what are choirs for, even? Spiritual purposes mostly, at least more so than most instrumental ensembles like orchestras. Choral singing started and is largely still associated with churches, temples, monasteries. For feeling some sort of greater connection with the world or a higher power or mother earth or something like that. That’s why we see, sing in, and listen to choirs. As an atheist, I generally don’t find my solace in church, I mostly find it in art. Last month I found it in Conspirare singing an arrangement of Dolly Parton.
I recently found out that in 1919, when Samuel Barber was 19 years old, he wrote a coming out letter to his mother. I wonder if An American Romantic would have made him feel spiritual too.
Dear Mother: I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlet [sic]. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure. I’ll ask you one more thing.—Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football.—Please—Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very),
Sam Barber II