In its latest festival, Conspirare finds choral Passions thriving in 21st century music

Craig Hella Johnson
Craig Hella Johnson

Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion may be one of the most glorious, compelling choral works in Western music, but it's hardly the last word on Passions. Works that examine the nature of human suffering in the mingling of voices are written to this day, a fact that Conspirare is making the focus of a festival of music this month. Austin's Grammy-nominated chorus, no stranger to ambitious thematic programs, will present five works over 11 days – three of them new – plus a sixth in workshop form. Titled comPassion, the festival covers works about both suffering and our empathetic desire to alleviate suffering. The new works encompass ancient texts (twin-brother composers Doug and Brad Balliett have based their A Gnostic Passion on apocryphal texts about Jesus' life), passages from modern history (John Muehleisen weaves through his Pietà bits of letters, poems, and songs from the Civil War and World War I), and reflections on recent events (Conspirare Artistic Director Craig Hella Johnson will offer a performance of his passion-in-progress, Considering Matthew Shepard). Maurice Duruflé's mid-20th century Requiem will share the bill with Johnson's piece, and completing the festival will be another visit to Bach's masterly St. Matthew Passion.

Complementing the singing will be a series of comPassion Dialogues – sessions in which Johnson and the festival composers will discuss their works and settings, the tradition of Passions in music, and how we connect to them. Composer Robert Kyr, a favorite collaborator with Conspirare who will offer a workshop peek at his The Passion According to an Unknown Witness, will lead the Dialogues.

comPassion runs June 5-15 in Austin, Fredericksburg, and Victoria. Austin concerts and events are listed below. Unless otherwise noted, they will take place at St. Martin's Lutheran Church, 606 W. 15th. For more information, visit

PIETÀ by John Muehleisen Friday and Saturday, June 6 & 7, 8pm. Pre-concert conversation with composer John Muehleisen: 6:45pm. Post-concert talkback with Muehleisen and Craig Hella Johnson.

comPassion Dialogue: A Passion Walk for Our Time Robert Kyr's The Passion According to an Unknown Witness, presented in workshop format with Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare Symphonic Choir. Saturday, June 7, 11am at Grace United Methodist Church, 205 E. Monroe.

comPassion Dialogue: The Passion as Text for Music Robert Kyr discusses the Passion text and its inspiration for great music. Saturday, June 7, 2pm.

CONSIDERING MATTHEW SHEPARD by Craig Hella Johnson & REQUIEM by Maurice Duruflé Sunday, June 8, 8pm, at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, 8134 Mesa. Preconcert discussion of the passion as requiem and requiem as passion by Robert Kyr and Craig Hella Johnson.

A GNOSTIC PASSION by Doug and Brad Balliett Tuesday, June 10, 6pm

ST. MATTHEW PASSION by J.S. Bach Saturday, June 14, 8pm; Sunday, June 15, 3pm. Preconcert talk on Bach's St. Matthew Passion and its relationship to the theme of compassion by Robert Kyr one hour before the performance.

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comPassion, Conspirare, Austin classical music, Craig Hella Johnson, Robert Kyr, John Muehleisen, Doug and Brad Balliett

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