Conspirare

Cause for singing

Conspirare

For Austin's sterling choral ensemble Conspirare, the first few months of 2006 have been not just unusually active but unusually exciting. After wrapping up their midwinter concert here – the aptly titled Wondrous Journey – director Craig Hella Johnson and his company of voices departed for Omaha, where Conspirare served as the choir in residence for the regional convention of the North Central American Choral Directors Association. Johnson had also been commissioned by the NCACDA to create and program a special concert at the St. Cecilia Cathedral in which peace was considered through a variety of lenses: peace with the earth, with other people in the world, within the individual, with God. It was the major event of the convention and earned raves from those in attendance, with one choral director proclaiming it "the most inspiring, emotional, exceptional concert that I ever experienced in my life," adding that with all that is going on in the world, "Movements in Peace should be performed in Washington D.C., New York City. … It should not end with ACDA in Omaha."

That was followed by the release of the group's second CD on Clarion, Requiem – We Are So Lightly Here. The main attractions of this double-disc recording are a pair of requiems from the first half of the 20th century. The first, by Herbert Howells, is a hushed appeal to the Almighty from one who seems to have made a journey through grief and come through it to a place of wistful peace. The second, by Ildebrando Pizzetti, is alternately serene and majestic, soaring on ancient wings as Pizzetti draws on medieval traditions that evoke angels singing within great Gothic cathedrals. The two show how sensitive Conspirare can be to mood and texture, even in works with similar themes. The chorus imbues the Howells with a reverence that feels deeply personal, as if every singer shared in the same deep sorrow. The Pizzetti, on the other hand, it fills with a surety of faith that swells into something both luminous and commanding. Set around these jewels are several smaller but no less precious gems: Eric Whitacre's setting of three of e.e. cummings' most jubilant poems, rendered here with shining, silvery joy; "We Remember Them," a tender memorial work by Austin composer Donald Grantham, one which was inspired by the victims of Charles Whitman's shooting spree but that seems to take in its all-embracing arms lost souls from the Holocaust through September 11 and beyond; "Be Music, Night," Bradley Ellingboe's sweet setting of an impossibly beautiful Kenneth Patchen poem-prayer entreating night, sea, sky, earth, and Deity to care for a loved one, sung with the whispery devotion of a lullaby; Eliza Gilkyson's "Requiem," a prayer to Mary inspired by the 2004 tsunami, sung here by a group of voices in a gentle stream that flows upward to heaven; and "The Road Home," Stephen Paulus' treatment of the old hymn tune "Prospect" that Conspirare renders so soothingly, with such blessed assurance (and a spirit-lifting solo by the gifted Melissa Givens), that an easing calm settles on one's soul. The descriptions may make this recording sound rather downbeat, sunken in sadness and gloom, but that isn't the case. Rather, Requiem – We Are So Lightly Here offers the ear – and the soul – a balm for the turmoil within, comfort for that part of us that feels lost. In "The Road Home," Michael Dennis Browne's text includes the line, "There's a voice I can hear that will lead me home." On this recording there is a company of voices, but lead us home they do.

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