No one is very likely to mistake Craig Hella Johnson for a mad scientist. The founder of the professional choral ensemble Conspirare and its artistic director for, lo, these 16 years is too boyish in appearance, too soft-spoken, and too, well, cheerful to pass for take-over-the-planet insane. That said, he and his company of voices are on a global trajectory that could bring them well within a breath of world domination. Not that Johnson himself would ever say so much; in addition to being sunny, subdued, and wholesomely good-looking, the man is modest to a fault. (You can blame those too-good-to-be-true manners on his Minnesota upbringing.)
But the facts are there for anyone to see: Just a few years ago, Conspirare began to garner serious national attention, receiving Chorus America's prestigious Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence and being one of just seven choruses in the country chosen by the National Endowment for the Arts to host a choral festival as part of its American Masterpieces initiative. Then, last year, the ensemble's second CD, Requiem, snagged a pair of Grammy nominations – and it was the only American choir in the Choral Performance category that year. Now, Conspirare's impact is being felt globally. The group is weeks away from a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, for the eighth World Symposium on Choral Music, where it will be the only choir from the United States to perform. It has recorded its third CD – focusing on the music of Tarik O'Regan, the highly regarded young composer from Great Britain whose work was featured in Conspirare's first concert of the season – and when it's released in September, it will be on Harmonia Mundi, the distinguished recording label for the Tokyo String Quartet and Anonymous 4, among other leading classical artists, and one whose name – are you listening, conspiracy theorists? – translates literally as "world harmony." It's only a matter of time before Conspirare will be heard in every corner of the globe.
Johnson was in the midst of preparation for the company's official debut in the Long Center – performing the vigorous and dramatic Verdi Requiem this Saturday (see "Verdi's Greatest Opera") – but he and Executive Director Erich Vollmer took a break long enough to discuss the company's extension into the larger world.
In a sense, the successes that Conspirare is experiencing today can be traced back to the company's first days as the New Texas Music Festival in the early Nineties. "We said from the very beginning that we wanted to have a musical company that was a group of world-class artists and presented world-class performances. We put that on ourselves," says Johnson. As that was the standard set by Johnson early on, it served as the foundation for the company's aspirations, and it continues to be that today.
Actually, all of the company's current goals are still in line with the goals that were established for Conspirare in the beginning. Johnson always wanted and still wants the choir "to share the best musical offerings that we can," and, he adds: "I want it to be vital and invigorating and to be in dialogue with the larger world. Having grown up in a small town and going to places where people have developed a culture that is so committed to its own values and its own merits that it becomes provincial, I don't want to do anything that keeps the world small and self-focused."
In Johnson's view, that sense of expansion applies not only to music that the choir sings but to the very idea of choir itself. "I'm a Gemini at heart; I'm a Gemini by birth," says the director, "so for me there's a foot that is always going to be rooted in the classics – the canonical repertoire is our fountain of inspiration, strength, and continuity – and the other foot just as firmly planted in what can we do with this notion of choir. Can we take that word and just turn it on its head? That's why I love that we're called a company of voices. I feel that we've just begun to explore that. I want us to see: What kinds of music, what kinds of collaborations, what kinds of poetic ideas can we engage so that it's really a living, vital, creative, dynamic art form? I'd like to be on the front side of creation in terms of what we think of when we think of choir."
Exploring those frontiers of what choir can be is something Conspirare will have ample opportunity to do at the World Symposium on Choral Music. The Austin ensemble will be one of 29 very diverse choral groups from outside Denmark: children's choirs from Hungary, Indonesia, Switzerland, Romania, and the entire African continent; youth choirs from Ghana, New Zealand, and Latvia; Swedish men's choirs; a Brazilian choir specializing in renaissance and baroque works; a French choir that incorporates video; a civic chorale from Taiwan; a Canadian ensemble of professional singers that performs without a conductor. The choral talent is as varied as the cultures represented.
And being represented at the symposium is a widely sought honor. "Choirs all over the world auditioned to be invited," says Johnson. "We knew the stature and prestige of this organization, so we thought, 'Well, let's submit a tape.' Then we were delighted when we got the invitation."
The invitation was actually just the first honor. The second was being chosen to premiere a new choral piece. "After we had been invited to sing and were planning our own program, the administrators for the festival said they wanted the choir to do the premiere of this work by Vytautas Miskinis, who's all the rage across the Atlantic," says Johnson.
"The organizing committee commissioned a dozen works, and they assigned works to certain choirs," adds Erich Vollmer. The one that Conspirare will sing is called A Light Mass. At 35 minutes, the piece "is twice as long as it should be," Vollmer continues. "But we were so impressed by the piece that we said, 'We'll do it.'"
For Johnson, though, a big part of the symposium's appeal isn't being listened to as much as listening to others. "The focus of the symposium is to highlight how choirs communicate with their audience," he says, adding that "we have a challenging medium in that people stand in rows, facing flat, facing an audience that's directly opposite. So each group is supposed to take a deep look at: How do we communicate? We need to be reminded always how to keep the theatrical elements, communicative elements, really living and vital in our performances. It's an incredible gift for us to be at this symposium and feed off all the energy and imagination from these choirs that have come from all over the world. I love it just for what we can take back from that."
Bringing something from the rest of the world back to Texas is valuable, no question. But it may be even more valuable to send something from Texas to the rest of the world. That was the spark that led Conspirare to its new and prestigious record label. Johnson, Vollmer, and the company were growing increasingly interested in international distribution and digital downloads, "and that was not something that was available to us at the label we were on," says Johnson. As he and the company were developing the program of Tarik O'Regan music, they felt that "this was a repertoire that we wanted to have carried on a strong label with strong distribution." He spoke directly with O'Regan, who at the time was working on a project with the Estonian choir that was going to be recorded for Harmonia Mundi. "So," recalls Johnson, "I simply said: 'You're sitting with the producer there in about a week. Let's pitch this idea to her. What do you think?' The woman who was running Harmonia Mundi USA is very fond of Tarik and his music, and she expressed some interest. We met in New York, and I think she liked the recording that she heard. We had talked for maybe half an hour, and I'd shared a little about who we were and what our values were, and at one point she just reached her hand across the table and said, 'Well, let's do it.' So I said, 'Okay.' And she's continued to express interest in what we were doing and future projects. So it's been a delightful thing."
Actually, it's been much more than delightful. It's been revelatory, opening up quite literally a whole new world for Conspirare. The new label means the choir will have international distribution for the first time in its history. "On a practical level, friends in England who said, 'Why can't we hear your recording of Herbert Howell's Requiem?' can go down the street and buy it," explains Johnson. "It will be in stores across Europe and in Australia, and you name where they sell classical CDs, and we'll be represented there. And Harmonia Mundi is completely plugged in digitally, so that's a big piece for us. It connects us to an audience internationally where we might tour. If there are no recordings of England, for example, it would be less likely that we would tour there or receive any recognition there at all. But with these recordings in place, absolutely. And [touring] is something we're very interested in doing."
Touring, however, costs money, which can be a struggle for even a world-class, Grammy-nominated choral ensemble to raise. Part of the problem, as Vollmer sees it, is "that choral music is the hardest performing art for people to 'get.'" For some reason, a bunch of people singing together doesn't seem to have the sex appeal of orchestras or operas or ballets.
And complicating the matter for Conspirare is the fact that it isn't your ordinary choir. It's made up of professionals, a concept that hasn't really taken root in the culture. "Choral music is primarily and significantly an amateur art," says Johnson, "and I mean that in the best sense of that word: as an art of fellowship and an art of participation on many levels. But because of that, the idea of a professional choir still isn't in our thinking at all. In Europe maybe a little bit more, and in this country, in just a handful of cities, you're starting to see groups where singers are paid for some services. But there's no precedent for it. If someone in a major city were to say, 'We don't have a professional symphony orchestra, and we need to build one,' there would be a template in place that people would understand and be able to find their way into. But with a choir, people still need to get a picture of that a little more."
Then there's the issue of competing needs. As Vollmer puts it, "When you're measured against another need, such as hunger or homelessness, it doesn't measure up."
Put it all together, and you have an organization that, even with the world seemingly in its grasp, is facing a fistful of challenges. And challenges were not exactly something that Vollmer needed in his life when the opportunity to become Conspirare's first executive director fell his way. "Fourteen months ago, I wasn't looking for a new challenge because I had been through about four in a row. But I met this guy in the interview here in Austin," he says, referring to Johnson, "and I went back to Santa Fe and said, 'Well, it may be a challenge, but you never have had the opportunity to work with someone like this, and you'd be a fool not to do it.' That was the deciding factor."
Johnson could well be the deciding factor in most everything that happens with Conpirare. You can talk about the constants in the company that have led to this time of great recognition and exposure – that world-class standard, the eclectic and expansive repertoire, the professionalism of the singers, the desire to engage with the world, the devoted audiences who do "get" choral music and engage in what Johnson calls "deep listening" – but you can't talk about them without also talking about the man who heads the choir, the one who began it, who established its ideals, who leads the way in that exploration of what a choir can be, who has brought this choir forward every step of the way for 16 seasons. Craig Hella Johnson is the big constant, the one most responsible for taking Conspirare from our town to every part of the world.
Not that he would acknowledge as much. Of course not. Though it seems ever more clear that Conspirare could be taking over the world any minute, Craig Hella Johnson just smiles shyly and, in that characteristically understated way, says that this is an exciting time for his choir because, "I think we are starting to live our way just a little bit into a few of our dreams."
Conspirare performs the Verdi Requiem on Saturday, June 21, 8pm, in Dell Hall at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 476-5775 or visit www.conspirare.org.
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