To say love was everywhere in Conspirare's first concert of 2019, that it was as pervasive as the very air in the sanctuary of St. Martin's Lutheran Church, may make the performance sound like some string of poppy, puppy-dog declarations of desire, one so cloying and syrupy that you'd be stuck to the pew when it was over. But that wasn't the love filling our ears in Hope of Loving. No, in devoting this program to music by contemporary composer Jake Runestad, Artistic Director Craig Hella Johnson had his Grammy-winning choral ensemble gift us with love that was wild, blazing, healing. Runestad takes his musical inspiration from philosophers and poets who link love to nature and light and the eternal. Its celestial avatars are not chubby cherubs but angels who soar "up to God's own light," as Alfred Noyes puts it, on wings that beat like eagles'. Its light burns away darkness and transcends grief. Love gives us purpose.
The world in which Runestad places us is a hard one, one fully acknowledging the loss and sorrow and hopelessness that afflicts us. In Todd Boss' text for "Waves," the narrator confesses, "My sadness is as enormous as the sea." In "And So I Go On," the same poet has a figure who's grieving a lost love say, "There is no sea/ that can drown my pain." This mourner is no more free than the caged bird of Paul Laurence Dunbar's famed poem, also set to music by Runestad. Then there are the opening lines to Wendell Berry's "The Peace of Wild Things," which seem to capture precisely the despondency of the days we live in: "When despair for the world grows in me/ and I wake in the night at the least sound/ in fear of what my life and my children's lives will be ...."
Runestad has found musical equivalents to these pained sentiments – dirgelike tempos, staccato phrasing, sudden crescendos – and Johnson, at times, heightened the effect at Conspirare's concert, as when he divided the choir with half in the left aisle and half in the right, so their back-and-forth of waves "crashing and thrashing" rolled over the audience.
But more remarkable was how Runestad infused these expressions of heartache with empathy, a secondary voice or underscoring that conveyed a sense of understanding and compassion. In "Why the Caged Bird Sings," the hushed repetition of the words "I know, I know" seemed a response to the description of the trapped animal, an affirmation that its torment was recognized by another. No hurt here went unheard or unshared.
Elsewhere, the composer's compassion took a more direct form. In places where the texts turned from an initial declaration of despair to one about finding peace or love, his music would follow, with voices rising in beautifully overlapping harmonies or settling in low, soft, calming chords. Or, as in the six parts of The Hope of Loving or the piece "Flower Into Kindness," with texts all about celebrating love, the music wrapped the words in gentle, serene melodies, caressing their assertion of love's enduring power.
Conspirare is nothing if not sensitive to feeling – a quality drawn from the warm and caring Johnson – and its singers displayed a profound care for the emotions in Runestad's compositions. They made the agitation of "Why the Caged Bird Sings" personal and took on the full weight of grief in "And So I Go On." Their tenderness in "Let My Love Be Heard" touched the heart, while the exultant exhortations in "Come to the Woods" – taken from John Muir's testament to bonding with nature – made one want to tramp to the forest. More than anything, though, they made the love sung about a true thing, a force beyond any that humanity can produce, a force that soothes, that enlightens, that heals. Listening to Runestad's works given breath by Conspirare was a healing experience. It made one grateful that Johnson and his company of voices are devoting their next recording to his music. We need the love.
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