What You See Is What You Hear
The joy that Conspirare takes in singing is visible in the choir's PBS special
By Robert Faires,
6:35PM, Fri. Feb. 27, 2009
Wednesday, March 11. 7pm.
Get your calendar. Mark it down. I’ll wait.
Oh, and if you have something on for then, reschedule. This is sweeter.
What it is is the broadcast premiere of A Company of Voices: Conspirare in Concert on KLRU. If you are already a fan of Conspirare, you don’t need me to explain why this is a significant event. But if you still haven’t heard Austin’s beloved – and increasingly world renowned – vocal ensemble and are wondering what all the fuss is with the multiple Grammy nominations two years in a row and widespread critical raves and invitations to perform at choral assemblies across the planet and what all, this program, which will be shown nationally on PBS, will make it clear to you. The members of this choir and its leader, Craig Hella Johnson, are vocal alchemists who can transmute any scrap of music into aural gold.
Now, don’t let the word “choir” throw you. If you’re imagining a horde of black-robed figures belting out endless runs of 16th notes and unintelligible German text that was dusty and tired when Bach was in knee pants, think again.
No robes here, no sprechen auf Deutsch, and the oldest numbers are a spiritual, “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” and a folk song, “The Water Is Wide.” The rest of the songs come from the past century and from such obscure composers as Dolly Parton, Carly Simon, Annie Lennox, Eliza Gilkyson, and Ennio Morricone – which is to say, the music is eminently accessible. And if that summons fears of the stiff, stilted delivery of a glee club attempting pop songs, no worries. These vocalists have the chops and soulfulness to truly make pop pop, and the songs are arranged in such a way that you seem to be listening to not so much a band of singers doing stairstep harmonies as a river of voices that run through one another like currents – so fluid, so smooth, and so blended that they seem to be one thing.
The program will not, admittedly, communicate all the magic that comes from a live performance by Conspirare (and not just because it will be interrupted by KLRU pledge breaks). To get the full experience, you need to be in the room with the singers and, as the name Conspirare indicates, “breathe together” with them. That said, the camera puts you right in the midst of these singers and the sound they make. And whether you know their work well or are hearing it for the first time, you’re able to see what you always hear when Conspirare performs: a deep and genuine joy in singing, an exultation, and, however hokey it may sound, a love, generous and heartfelt. That radiates from no one more brightly than Johnson, who we get to see conduct from the front here. He puts all of himself into each number, body and soul, and you can sense that drawing the beauty out of his choir.
“Choir.” This is a performance that should forever change what you think of that word. And you can count on it feeding the fuss being made over Conspirare, here and around the globe.