The penultimate night of this season's New Texas Festival saw a reduced Conspirare Choir of 12 singers under the direction of Craig Hella Johnson give voice in what might be described as a high-art compare-and-contrast presentation. Selections by the 16th-century composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina were sung alongside those of 20th-century composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) in an evening that ultimately displayed just how exquisite Johnson's choir is. Both composers' works were sacred, but offered compelling distinctions in approach. The Renaissance composer's songs were mostly warm and full, often with cascading voices echoing lines of sacred text. The spirituality and uplift of these songs complemented the vaulted ceilings of the stark yet intimate venue, the Carillon. Pärt's work gave the feeling of listening to an added dimension missing from the Renaissance sound. Pärt, who studied French and Flemish 14th-16th century vocal music, created something of a "modern Gregorian chant," according to Johnson. But the musicality and sheer dramatic force of Pärt's work make Gregorian chant seem so simple.
After easing into the evening with Palestrina's Sicut cervus, the choir divided into two mini-choirs for the composer's Stabat Mater. Both pieces gave the sense of a gentle, musical cascade of voices, where repetition and response filled the Carillon with a rather pleasant, optimistic sound. The first Pärt selection, his Magnificat antiphons, also had a smooth, musical sensibility at its opening, but the choir had already tensed, as if for what was to follow. If the singers waved and flowed with the Palestrina selections throughout the night, the Pärt selections saw an intense stillness among the choir. These modern songs were clearly the greater challenge: a challenge for both performer and audience. The second movement of the antiphons, with its plea "o come and save us" was, perhaps, too loud for the bright, intimate space. Certainly there was a ferociousness to it that indicated the drama of the Pärt works to follow; once acclimatized to Pärt's use of near silence, rhythm, and sharp attack, what followed was increasingly fascinating.
Following the antiphons, the choir returned to the now rather staid but still lovely Palestrina for his Assumpta est Maria, then came another Pärt selection, And one of the Pharisees, a haunting, silent tale, sung in English (Pärt's songs were sung in Latin, German, Italian, and English) by a trio of voices that simply grew more and more dramatic, even when in near silence. Terribly beautiful, this was the evening's outstanding moment. After this, the chorus was clearly reveling in the harder material, and the next selection, Pärt's Dopo la vittoria, with its pulsating opening and closing, showed the chorus at its liveliest.
To finish the evening, two versions of the Credo: Palestrina's version smooth and gentle and Pärt's, again, pulsating and dramatic. One is tempted to ask if the dozen singers represent the crème de la crème of New Texas Music Works' Conspirare Choir; but no matter its complement -- full or reduced -- the Conspirare Choir is world-class.
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