Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., June 14, 2002
The Sopranos: Warmth That Drifted AwayNew Texas Music Works,
New Texas Music Works closed this season's New Texas Festival with a collection of tremendously talented ladies -- sopranos who have sung with the Conspirare Choir over the years -- singing a wide variety of material, together, individually, and sometimes with the help of another group of talented ladies, the Conspirare Altos. Hailing from all over the country, many still living in Austin, these nine vocalists each took a turn center stage to say a little about herself, give effusive thanks to NTMW Artistic Director Craig Hella Johnson, laud her fellow sopranos, and then sing something a shade personal, revealing more about the woman behind the voice than is usually apparent when the entire choir is formally arrayed. The evening was full of smiles and mutual appreciation among the performers. For the audience came several opportunities to hear why the Conspirare Choir and its soprano section are so inspiring.
Perhaps the most evocative performance of the night was "The Singer's Childhood," by 20th-century Estonian composer Veljo Tormis, in which a solo soprano voice was supported by the rest of the choir in a moody yet lovely story about taking words heard as a child and turning them into songs. A sequence of Hanns Eisler songs, the "Woodbury Lieder-Buchlein," took children's poems and nursery rhymes and turned them into short blasts of humorous, quirky songs, rife with ribald double-entendres. Franz Schubert's "Du Bist die Ruh'" ("Thou Art Rest") was simply gorgeous. "The Rainbow," by Benjamin Britten, also offered a simple majesty in dulcet tones. Britten's giddier, "The Ship of Rio," closed the program's first half with humor.
Throughout the musical night, soloists interspersed self-chosen songs. For such an accomplished gathering of excellent singers, the individual selections were an uneven mix. Among the best of these turns was Jennifer Needham leading off the second half of the program in strong voice with Samuel Barber's "Nuvoletta," a Joycean epic of a tragic young girl. Sarajane Gordon's "When William at Eve," by William Shield, showed off both the singer's fine voice and playful exuberance. Jennie Olson offered Handel's "Tornami a Vagheggiar" from his opera Alcina and fairly blew away her peers: Her vocal dexterity had the other ladies bowing their reverence. Kathleen Rich Brown's rendition of Purcell's "Sweeter Than Roses" was the evening's first solo; she allowed a detectable jazz phrasing, revealing a voice set free to lovely effect.
At the concert's conclusion came a sequence of pop tunes ranging from Burt Bacharach to Madonna. While these songs allowed for a show of sister spirit and commitment for choral singing, the energy of the evening simply petered out. Arrangements by conductor Johnson of Pete Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn," Sade's "Pearls (Woman in Somalia)," and Madonna's "What it Feels Like for a Girl" lacked the intricacy and depth that bring out the best in Johnson and his chorus. As the ladies drifted off stage to a reprise of "Turn, Turn, Turn," there was, for the moment, a recaptured warmth and connection to these terrific voices. But it was an elusive warmth. Such was the overall feel of the concert: that it drifted away, lacking the sustained intensity and interest that is the hallmark of the choir's, and Johnson's, best work.
It's the hard stuff that makes the Conspirare Choir so wonderful to listen to. Johnson's selections of works by Distler or Eisler or Tormis offer intriguing, demanding, fascinating, and infinitely rewarding opportunities to hear human voices exploring the farthest reaches of compositional imagination with assuredness, and always with a visceral connection to the audience. The audience is listening, indeed, so give us the good, hard stuff.