Midsummer Night's Renaissance

Local Arts Reviews

Midsummer Night's Renaissance

Central Christian Church, June 27

Of the many formidable classical music ensembles in Austin, Conspirare always stands out for the clarity, precision, grace, and sheer beauty of its work. Whether it's singing intricate modern works or jaunty madrigals, the intensity and fullness of the choir's performances make it a local institution to treasure. Director Craig Hella Johnson has honed his artists into a delightful, sharply focused ensemble, and this concert provided yet another example of enchanting song.

Johnson pointed out that this part of the Renaissance – most of the works were composed by artists from 16th-century Europe – is any chorale's treasure trove, yet even in a concert devoted mainly to examples from the period, "we can only scratch the surface." The bulk of the program featured religious settings, mostly period with a pair of modern works based on Renaissance motets, but a quartet of madrigals rounded out this rather uplifting performance.

The evening began with Pierre de la Rue's lovely, gentle "O Salutaris Hostia," and when the work concluded, as is typical for a Conspirare concert, silence reigned. No one dared applaud following the soothing waves of the opening number; no one wanted to break the spell. "O nata lux de lumine" by Thomas Tallis followed, slightly more full yet just as gentle. Englishman Tallis also provided the extended meditation "Lamentations of Jeremiah," which, Johnson noted, while rather straightforward musically on the page, would grow in complexity "from within." What the audience received were the colors and layered effects of a contemplative, emotional song. For "Super flumina Babylonis," by Italian composer Luca Marenzio, Johnson – ever the warm host and helpful guide – explained that when such pieces were performed in the churches of Italy, choral voices would be joined by brass on either side of the audience, so in this spirited, uplifting tune, the vocalists were "singers and brass." Like a good modern pop tune, the catchy, up-tempo music offset an introspective, somber lyric. Next up was the joyful "Alleluia, Sing a New Song," by Austrian Jakob Handl, here sung brightly in English. Then, to close the first half: a modern piece by French composer Philippe Hersant, "Aus Tiefer Not," taken from a Bach cantata and rendered into something quite new. To allow the comparison, Johnson led the choir in the first verse from the Bach, then the group launched into Hersant's piece, whereupon one instantly confronted the tension inherent in the work. This selection featured James Brown on the viola da gamba – a precursor of the cello – which added to the sometimes brooding, sometimes discordant strains of the song, often helping to drive the tempo. Awesome alto Stephanie Prewitt was highlighted early in the work, and in the concluding verse the phenomenal soprano Jennie Olson was, her voice strong and crystal clear.

After the lengthy intermission came a pair of works by Orlande de Lassus, another example of an artist who reflected on an established work to come up with something new. First, his "Osculetur me osculo," which in turn begat an elegant "Kyrie" from his "Missa Osculetor me." Another highlight of the night was Frank Ferko's The Hildegard Motets, four modern settings of motets by Hildegard von Bingen that offered a variety of sounds and rhythms with an overriding comtemplative sense. The concert ended with four madrigals, including Claude le Jeune's "Reveci venir du printemps," which offered a variety of combinations of featured performers Stefanie Moore, soprano; Emily Lodine, mezzo-soprano; Pam Elrod, alto; Matt Tresler, tenor; and David Farwig, bass, supported by the rest of the fine chorus.

Describing the many textures, sounds, and emotions one feels listening to Conspirare is rather like trying to describe a fine wine: "round and full," "warm overtones," "slightly complex," "dark," "jaunty." Just as there are myriad fine vintages to be tasted from the vineyards of Europe, so, too, are there myriad fine songs that Conspirare offers for its audience to taste, appreciate, and enjoy. This simple bottle – 17 singers arrayed on the dais under the careful guidance of Johnson – opens to reveal complex, joyful sounds of the highest quality. Drink up.

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Midsummer Night's Renaissance, Conspirare Craig Hella Johnson Pierre de la Rue, "O Salutaris Hostia", "O nat lux de lumine", Thomas Tallis, "Lamentations of Jeremiah", "Super flumina Babylonis", Luca Marenzio, "Alleluia, Sing a New Song", Jakob Handl, Philippe Hersant, "Aus Tiefer Not", Stephanie Prewitt, Jennie Olson, Orlande de Lassus, "Osculetur me osculo", "Missa Osculetor me", Frank Ferko, The Hildegard Motets

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