Christmas Concert Spins Spirituality With Off-Beat Mix

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The professional choir Conspirare, based in Austin, Texas, performs an eclectic mix of repertoire under founder and artistic director Craig Hella Johnson. (Karen Sachar)
Radiant Christmas collages of the chorus Conspirare mingle sources as diverse as the Bee Gees, Sting and Advent carols.
Artistic director Craig Hella Johnson, at right, devises the arrangements. (Karen Sachar)
By Mike Greenberg

SAN ANTONIO – It is no surprise to hear a 17th-century Advent hymn, Paul Gerhardt’s “O Lord, How Shall I Meet Thee,” on a Christmas concert. But when a few lines from that hymn are interwoven with fragments from Sting’s “A Thousand Years” and the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” (from Saturday Night Fever, of all things) in a seamless arrangement that makes perfect textual sense, you are in the hands of a genius.  Namely, Craig Hella Johnson, founder and artistic director of the Austin, Tex., professional chorus called Conspirare.

Craig Hella Johnson is noted for his innovative programming. (Karen Sachar)
Johnson sought to explore ‘what’s sacred, what’s secular.’ (K. Sachar)

A 24-voice contingent from that troupe, joined by the remarkable blues singer Ruthie Foster, brought a Christmas program to San Antonio’s Laurel Heights United Methodist Church on Dec. 6, prior to a series of performances in Austin.

Johnson is a Minnesota native who studied piano under William Masselos at Juilliard and then, on a fellowship, worked with the eminent Bach conductor Helmuth Rilling in Stuttgart. On returning to the States he did doctoral work at Yale and, in 1990, landed a job as associate director and then director of choral activities at the University of Texas-Austin. The following year he became artistic director of the Victoria (Tex.) Bach Festival and established Conspirare in Austin. In the intervening years, Conspirare has racked up numerous honors, including five Grammy nominations. In 2008 Conspirare represented the United States at the Eighth World Symposium on Choral Music in Copenhagen.

In years past Johnson has led Conspirare and other choruses in deeply satisfying performances of standard works such as Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Brahms’ A German Requiem (Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is scheduled for the 2014 Victoria Bach Festival), and his troupe has also essayed major contemporary choral works such as Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles.

Conspirare at work with Craig Hella Johnson (Karen Sacher)
Conspirare, in preparation, with Craig Hella Johnson. (K. Sachar)

But the “collage” technique he developed for the annual “Conspirare Christmas” – it started in 1994 as “Christmas at the Carillon” – is crucial to understanding the sense of humanity and cultural empathy he brings to the podium.

In a 2004 interview, Johnson said he wanted the Christmas program to be “ecumenical in the broadest sense” and that it had become “an exploration for us of what’s sacred, what’s secular. Secular love songs can be thought of as a realization of the divine. What’s classical? What’s popular?”

A bald program listing could induce bewilderment, if not whiplash. For example, the sequence mentioned above was followed immediately by the secular love song “All the Way” (sung by Johnson, in a limpid tenor voice) and then Stephen Paulus’ elegantly crafted “Hymn to the Eternal Flame.”

But the program is not just a sequence of disparate works. In Johnson’s arrangements, one piece might cross fade into the next, or bits of several pieces might interweave, either sequentially or in intricate counterpoint. The results can be achingly beautiful, as in his weaving of the African-American spiritual “My Lord What a Mornin'” and Sidney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance,” set to the Shaker hymn tune “Simple Gifts.”

Although much of the program is explicitly Christian in its texts – including audience sing-alongs of a few familiar carols – Johnson’s objective is to strip away the doctrinal armor and tribal heraldry in which Christianity and other religions are often clad and to reveal the universal yearnings at their core. Thus Gerhardt’s Advent hymn is sung with some changes in wording: “Love” replaces “Lord,” and the second line begins “All people long to greet you,”  rather than “Thy people long to greet you.”

Ruthie Foster was soloist with Conspirare. (John Carrico)
Blues singer Ruthie Foster, a ‘mighty river of  a voice.’ (John Carrico)

Foster delivered her solos – among them, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “I Wonder as I Wander,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Feeling Good” – with a mighty river of a voice and effortless, fluid phrasing. The chorus joined her in convincing gospel style for Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free.”

But many of the choristers also had juicy solos, and all acquitted themselves handsomely. As an ensemble, the troupe was remarkable for its stylistic range and taut discipline. Its impeccable intonation was nowhere more evident than in the complex modern harmonies of Tarik O’Regan’s “Threshold of Night,” title track from a collection of O’Regan’s music recorded by Conspirare for Harmonia Mundi.

The program changes a little each year, but one master stroke of juxtaposition has remained constant. The closing sequence begins with Johnson’s radiant setting of a passage from Wendell Berry’s poem “What Are People For?” That passage is worth quoting in full:

We clasp the hands of those that go before us,
And the hands of those who come after us.
We enter the little circle of each other’s arms
And the larger circle of lovers,
Whose hands are joined in a dance
And the larger circle of all creatures…
Who move also in a dance, to a music so subtle
And vast that no ear hears it.

Then the chorus weaves short bits from the carols “On Christmas Night,” “Silent Night,” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” through a solo rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Nothing could be more improbable, or more perfect.

Mike Greenberg is a critic based in San Antonio. Formerly senior critic for the San Antonio Express-News, he now maintains his own web site, incidentlight.com.