A Time for Life
A gorgeous and meaningful musical experience that again showed Conspirare's mastery
Reviewed by Michael Kellerman, Fri., Oct. 16, 2009
A Time for Life
St. Louis King of France Catholic Church
The epilogue of Robert Kyr's moving and elegiac oratorio, set to an adapted Navajo chant, pleads: "May it be beautiful before me, behind me, below me, above me, all around me. In beauty, it is finished." As the masterful voices of Conspirare dissipated
on these words, the performance closed with one voice, barely audible, singing the word "remember." Remember, I sure will.
The audience, packed into the beautiful, lofty sanctuary of St. Louis King of France Catholic Church, sat in total silence for more than 90 seconds before rewarding the artists. The performance began the same way: a moment of complete silence. The first was planned; the second, though, was a unified reaction to the gorgeous, delicate collaboration between Kyr and the vocalists under Craig Hella Johnson's direction.
A prolific and celebrated American composer (15 symphonies and counting), Kyr has written on commission by organizations across the globe, weaving his passionate advocacy for environmentalism into many of his works along the way. Written in three parts, A Time for Life is set to a wide spectrum of cultural texts, poems, and prayers that explore the harmony and the shame in man's relationship with the planet Earth.
Kyr's musical style, though basically tonal, is unique in its layering of modal practices from different traditions. The result is a signature sound that is accessible but also otherworldly, enigmatic, and tough to describe at the same time. In other settings, this style might not translate, but this past Friday evening, it most assuredly did.
The work was set for eight voices and a string trio and was anchored by two lead solo roles, here filled by Abigail Lennox's angelic, controlled soprano and David Farwig's haunting, commanding baritone/tenor. As soloists, all eight voices excelled, but it was in the communal moments, and in Kyr's gorgeous layering of voice and rhythm, that the instrument that is Conspirare truly lived up to its name. Upswells of sound, rising in pentatonic flourishes and falling in cascades, filled the room in a display of impressive control and blend.
If much of entertainment is meant to offer escape, Kyr and Conspirare here created a musical experience that reached for the opposite, drawing its audience into a state of relaxed, meditative focus. To prepare the audience for this, Johnson opened the performance by leading his eight vocalists, grouped at the back of the sanctuary behind the audience, in three hauntingly beautiful opening chants set to inspired, mystical texts. Thinking back on these chants as the last notes of A Time for Life hung in the air, it was clear to me what makes Conspirare stand out among other choral organizations that feature brilliant musicians. With each performance, Conspirare creates an entirely unique and meaningful experience, and much like Kyr, Johnson uses the choral tradition to explore the best and the worst of our humanity, inviting its audience into the conversation. When the pieces all fit well into the design, the result can be – and is often with Conspirare – transformative.
Kyr reminded the audience in his preperformance talk that we in Austin are very blessed to be home to one of the finest choral organizations on earth. Through A Time for Life, again, we remember.