“Singing is the way we communicate the simple song in each of us. At Conspirare we sing to ignite the creative, expressive voice in others as well. And it is the breath that is our common bond.” So says Craig Hella Johnson, the fifty-year-old Artistic Director and conductor, composer, arranger, and singer, who founded the acclaimed Austin-based choral ensemble, Conspirare in 1991.
The name “Conspirare,” which derives from the Latin meaning “to breathe together,” was carefully chosen by Hella Johnson for its metaphorical significance. He tells the story with animation: “I was reading Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time in which he writes about the loss of his partner Roger to AIDS. It is a difficult book emotionally, but I was touched by the way he called Roger and himself “conspirators,” which, of course, means those who breathe together. As singers, we paint on a canvas of breath. For all the differences among humankind which we hear proclaimed every day, we share a commonality of breath. It connects us to our audience; we listen breath and sing in breath.”
Listen to Samuel Barber: Twelfth Night, Op. 42, No. 1
The concept is one which appears palpably shared by the Conspirare ensemble and their public. Soprano Shari Alise Wilson attests to the feeling that during a concert “ it seems as if we are not only breathing together to give life to the music, but the audience is taking that breath with us; they are feeling what we are feeling.” Wilson, a Boston-based soloist, educator, and choral conductor, is one of the newer members of the some forty artists who constitute Conspirare’s professional chamber choir, A Company of Voices – artists who converge on Austin from all over the country for the ensemble’s concert and recording sessions.
The idea of creating an ensemble from professional soloists was revolutionary at Conspirare’s inception. “It was a newish model at the time,” Hella Johnson recalls. “We began as a summer music festival with a professional choir at the core, and shortly after I had the idea of gathering gifted solo artists from around the country to form a roster from which I could draw singers suited to the repertoire we were performing. At first it seemed challenging to fly in all these artists, but it really has worked!”
Hella Johnson built and continues to build his ensemble “singer by singer.” Once again, “connectivity” is his operative mantra. “Initially, I engaged singers I had heard in my own conducting experiences or based on recommendations or word of mouth. After a while, we began to hold auditions, as well.”
Today the organization consists of the Company of Voices, plus the resident Conspirare Symphonic Choir, who often collaborates with large musical entities such as the Austin Symphony, and the Conspirare Youth Choirs, directed by Nina Revering and managed by Rick Gabrillo. The ensemble, which has concertized throughout Europe and America, considers itself an ambassador of music. “We are always looking for ways to pass on the musical values that are important to all of us through educational outreach and to share our choral culture as it relates to the world at large,” Hella Johnson says.
Home base for Conspirare is Austin, Texas, which, according to Hella Johnson, is “a vibrant city artistically. We take our work seriously, but ourselves not so seriously. We can be devoted to passionate creativity without the weightiness of high culture sometimes found in larger centers.” Hella Johnson, who hails from Minnesota, had found himself teaching at the University of Texas, Austin in the 1990s when he observed that ”there were so many wonderful singers who didn’t have a place to go after college – a place where they could utilize fully their gifts. I felt we needed a niche where these artists could develop and build a professional career.” And so, for the last two decades Craig Hella Johnson has created a nurturing, dazzlingly innovative, provocative, challenging environment for singers to make ensemble music.
His inspiring presence and exquisite musicality touch not only Conspirare’s audiences, but the members of a Company of Voices as well. Mezzo- soprano Emily Lodine, who has sung with the group since 2002, speaks enthusiastically: “What a wonderful thing to sing with Conspirare and Craig!” A soloist in opera and oratorio, as well as a music educator, Lodine, who met Hella Johnson when he guest conducted Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, adds, “I am very blessed to be a small part of such a loving and exciting mission which brings joy to so many people.”
Another veteran singer, bass Rick Gabrillo, who has been with the group since its founding and who also serves (in addition to his work with the Youth Choirs) as Assistant Conductor, defines Hella Johnson’s magic as “ the way Craig preserves the space for the individual artists when they come together.” Sometimes choral directors want the singer to fulfill their vision and produce the sound they want to hear. Craig has an approach to the music in mind, but he may go in a completely different direction once he hears us sing. He invites us to bring our own sounds and work together to shape the piece. I love the collaborative effort. Craig always uses the metaphor of a string quartet – listening and sharing. In Conspirare the singers feel they can be true artists.”
Hella Johnson studied at Minnesota’s famed St. Olaf College, as well as at Juilliard, University of Illinois, Yale (where he earned his doctorate), and the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart under the tutelage of Helmuth Rilling. He cites the lessons he imbibed from several of his special mentors, among them Kenneth Jennings, who conducted the St. Olaf Choir. “Ken Jennings was a real singer at heart and a beautiful vocal coach. He made St. Olaf Choir sound like art song singers. He elicited from this seventy-five person group choral colors so incredibly beautiful and subtle. With Conspirare I cling to his inspiration: to produce sounds that might have the emotive potency equal to that of a great lieder singer.” In addition to Jennings, experiencing Klaus Tennstedt fueled Hella Johnson’s desire to conduct, and Juilliard pianist William Masselos inspired Hella Johnson to “try to make the gorgeous, round, rich singing tone he produced on his instrument take hold in choral music.”
Shari Wilson, who is herself a choral conductor, says she “takes away from Craig’s conducting prized lessons. “When you are in his presence and he starts conducting, you are transformed! I love his hands; he is not just making patterns. He is trying to find in the purest way what the music is saying and how we can all say it together.”
As Artistic Director, Hella Johnson not only conducts the Conspirare choirs, but he spearheads the vibrant and often unconventional programming that have become hallmarks of the ensemble’s concerts and recordings. “I start with a sense of freshness for every single piece of repertoire we present. Every concert or recoding is a blank canvas,” Hella Johnson explains. “I try to think what would be the best and most interesting way to communicate the music and let it be heard clearly with no presumptions. I want the music to speak of its own essence – to hear, for example Bach in the present moment in a live and clear reading.”
This thinking on Hella Johnson’s part has led to such concerts as the Bach Plus evening where the baroque master’s motets were paired with a new piece by Estonian composer, P├Ąrt Uusberg, together with a transcription of Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. Hella Johnson’s unique approach has sometime been described as a “collage style.” The conductor says he thinks that is an accurate description for Conspirare’s Carillon or Christmas programs, which he views as a “conversation among styles – almost like a deliberate iPod shuffle. I am not interested in innovation for its own sake, but rather for the sake of connecting” – of transmitting the music and its message to a modern audience.
Hella Johnson gives another example of this programming technique. “The Bach motet Komm, Jesu, komm is about weariness, but I felt I could not set that up cold, so I had one of the singers speak Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues underpinned by a blues piano accompaniment.”
Like all good lieder interpreters, Hella Johnson pays careful attention to the poetic values which shape choral texts. “I love poetry and words, but at the same time, we can rely on them too much. I want to sculpt the work in a way that leaves room for the music to speak on its own terms. Selecting repertoire is a challenge and a joy for Hella Johnson, who likens Conspirare’s forays into sacred and secular, classical and even pop as “an opportunity to play in this vast and varied garden and enjoy it all without having to choose.”
In order to structure smoothly flowing programs from such varied sources, Craig Hella Johnson has frequently created his own arrangements, some of which have now entered the standard choral repertoire. He has also composed songs and choral works. Next June’s concerts will feature a workshop production of his Considering Matthew Shepherd, a work about the 1998 hate crime murder of a young gay man. In typical Conspirare fashion the piece will be programmed with John Muehleisen’s Piet├á, the Texas premiere of Doug and Brad Balliett’s A Gnostic Passion, and the Bach St. Matthew’s Passion in what the group is calling a two-week “Passion Festival.”
Listen to The Water Is Wide (Traditional/arr. Craig Hella Johnson)
Of his arranging, composing, and performing as a singer, Hella Johnson says, “The spark is in me to write, but I don’t have a great deal of time to do that. When I do it is a great joy. “ Then he adds mischievously, “When I grow up I want to be a composer.”
In addition to the June Passion festival, Conspirare looks forward to a busy 2014. Their CD of American composer Kevin Puts’ haunting song cycle, If I Were a Swan, has recently been issued, and their recording of less familiar Russian choral works is scheduled for a February release. In January the ensemble will record their acclaimed interpretation of Jody Talbot’s a capella Path of Miracles. Conspirare’s efforts in the recording studio have garnered the ensemble five Grammy nominations, as well as the Dutch Edison Award. Their recent Samuel Barber: An American Romantic about which the ConcertoNet reviewer praised their “dazzling colors and attention to detail” and Sing Freedom, a collection of African-American spirituals programmed with such originality that the listener feels he is hearing some of these works for the first time, are just two of Conspirare’s heralded recording projects for the Hamonia mundi label.
However gratifying this critical esteem is for the singers, the artists treasure the transformative experience they find in the music even more. Shari Wilson recalls a very moving moment on the group’s Fall 2012 French tour of Paris when they stood on the beach at Normandy and spontaneously began to sing one of the spirituals from their repertoire. Wilson further articulates the meaning of the Conspirare experience. “Each time I work with Craig he allows me to express myself and to find through his message who I want to be. There is something so honest and pure; he is so generous with his humanity. Whenever I sing with Conspirare I get this image of a big puzzle with a missing piece. I enter the room, and the piece is put into place. I don’t know what I am searching for, but then I find it, there in the music.”
The image of a puzzle – a whole comprised of many individual pieces seems a perfect metaphor for the miracle that is Conspirare. For the artists and for their conductor, as well as for the audience, the ensemble’s music making is, as Rick Gabrillo calls it, “a collaborative effort.” Of that partnership Craig Hella Johnson says, “I hope our work can pave the way for a transcendent musical experience in the concert hall. I believe that what we aspire to as individual soloists, we can achieve as a group.”
Perhaps the ensemble’s mission catchphrase does say it all when it proclaims:. “We sing life.” CON-SPIR-ARE.
Photos - Karen Sachar and Courtesy Conspirare