I Dream a World

A program designed for Conspirare to flex its muscles and show off its versatility, which it did with great success

Arts Review

I Dream a World

University Presbyterian Church, Jan. 31

Looking over the program for I Dream a World, I saw nothing that wasn't classic Conspirare. Over its 15-year history, director Craig Hella Johnson has shaped the ensemble into one of the finest and most unique choral organizations around, earning a well-deserved reputation for bringing hugely diverse sources of musical expression to their audiences. So it wasn't a surprise to see a Hella Johnson-arranged version of Dolly Parton's "Light of a Clear Blue Morning" on the same bill as Samuel Barber and Morten Lauridsen.

I Dream a World isn't just another program, however; it represents much of the material that Conspirare will bring to the eighth World Symposium on Choral Music this summer in Copenhagen, Denmark. The theme of the symposium – and consequently the inspiration for Conspirare's current season tag – is "choral music meets its audience." Honored as the only U.S. choir invited to participate, Conspirare has the unique position of representing the American choral tradition at the symposium, while also unveiling its own locally beloved, untraditional style to a new audience.

I couldn't help but wonder, though: How would Dolly Parton fly in the concert halls of Denmark?

Leaving that aside, I sat back to take in the program, which was clearly a hand-picked opportunity for the ensemble to flex its muscles and show off its versatility, which was accomplished with great success. The following were among the highlights.

First, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, set to the text of "Agnus Dei." Harmonically lush, poignant, and fraught with longing, one of the brilliant things about this classic 20th century American piece is its dramatic tension, tethered to each and every passing note, which builds and builds to a climax that aches to burst out of the piece. There's a reason Barber set this for strings and not wind instruments or voices. Throughout the piece, it was remarkable that 36 voices could sustain the intense ostinato stretches of sound with not only excellent control but also great tenderness, beauty, and restraint.

Second, "The Campers at Kitty Hawk," by Michael Dellaira. A minimalist gush of metrical storytelling, this piece displayed another aspect of the choir's savvy instrument, its mastery of the tricky rhythm. The performance was fearless and exciting and along the way gave the audience a window into one of America's proudest moments, when two humble mechanics shocked the world by propelling the first man-made aircraft into flight. The audience sighed in delight before applauding.

Finally, "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?," arranged by Moses Hogan. Hella Johnson closed the first act with this big, bold spiritual, which the chorus sang with much joy. In the final verse, three soloists – Nancy Curtis, Melissa Givens, and Wendy Bloom – exploded above the ensemble in an awesome rush of controlled power singing. This time, the audience whooped and hollered.

Hella Johnson concluded the program with selections that highlighted the eclectic nature of Conspirare's brand and which most effectively distinguish it from other top-tier professional ensembles. This sort of ethos, built on a blend of popular reference, classical setting, and Hella Johnson's own creative influence, was exemplified by the inclusion of Parton's "Light of a Clear Blue Morning."

Hella Johnson first presented Parton's inspirational ballad outright with a soloist and accompaniment. Later, his arrangement set out to explore, extracting a variety of rhythmic and melodic cells – some obvious and others inventive – performed beautifully by the singers in virtuosic clusters that paid homage to the gospel setting of the original piece, while also creating another life altogether for the work. After hearing the performance, I had no doubt that in Conspirare's hands, this body of work will not only fly in Denmark, it will soar as it did on this night in Austin. World, meet Conspirare.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

I Dream a World, Conspirare, Craig Hella Johnson

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