La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Soaring "To the Still Point of the Turning World" with Conspirare Christmas 2013

Conspirare Christmas
Company of Voices
Ruthie Foster, guest artist
Craig Hella Johnson, conductor

Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
December 9, 2013

Now in its 21st season, Conspirare has clearly established itself as one of America’s finest chamber choirs. Based in Austin, Texas, its reach extends well beyond city or state borders through its recordings and tours. In Texas, one of the ensemble’s most popular undertakings is “Conspirare Christmas”, a series of seasonal concerts presented in the cities of Victoria and San Antonio, and culminating in a major event at the Long Center. This year’s Christmas concert was as fresh and imaginative as ever and featured the exceptional musical quality we have come to expect from Conspirare.

In addition to being a remarkably gifted musician, conductor Craig Hella Johnson (photo:right) is a man who appears to imbue everything he does with a spiritual dimension, always taking care not to impose one man’s faith upon another; that is to say, his desire to communicate through words and music is ecumenical, all-inclusive. Christmas is a Christian event, but for Johnson and Conspirare, it is also a time for people everywhere to come together to celebrate good things shared and to express hope for the future of mankind.

Conspirare’s Company of Voices comprised 24 on this occasion. The members of this choir are professional singers, first class soloists from all over the country who come together to perform as Conspirare (trans. “to breathe together”). Together and separately, they performed magnificently; Austin Soprano Mela Dailey, for example, contributed mightily in various solos, even delighting the audience with a turn on the drums.

Conspirare's Magical Musical Christmas Amalgam!
This season’s Conspirare Christmas concert combined a substantial selection of Christmas carols with gospel music, pop and traditional South African song. Guest artist this year was Austin blues and gospel singer, Ruthie Foster (photo:right). As a soloist and with the choir in a wide variety of songs ranging from Bottom of the River, I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free, Feeling Good, to Welcome Home (her own composition), and a well-deserved encore (a tribute to Nelson Mandela), Foster sang with spirit and soul!

As usual, this year’s Conspirare Christmas was not your “traditional” Christmas concert, although the spirit of Christmas (loving and giving) was there. The country and the world have changed, Johnson seems to be saying and we need to change with them if concepts like love, freedom and peace are to survive. We may be different, but we are all human, and we can connect if we but a special place. Through his unique and sensitive programming, Craig Hella Johnson continues to enrich the lives of his listeners through music.

The Spirit Journeys to a Special Place...
The program finale was  ‘I Could Have Danced all Night” from the 1956 Lerner & Loewe Broadway musical, My Fair Lady. A closer look at the lyrics for this song reveals very few “different” lines, among them the following: “I could have spread my wings”…”And done a thousand things”… “I’d Never done before.”

These lines relate to one of the recurring images (birds in flight) in this year’s Conspirare Christmas music selection - imagery that is a metaphor for the relationship between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and on a larger scale – for all relationships: we all need to experience the joy of falling in love, or of extending a hand in love to someone. Part of the satisfaction we take seeing Eliza and Henry in love is that it means that they have overcome their stations in life (taken “flight?”) and society to treat each other with respect, with love and with recognition of the other as being equal in every way. Through love there is no telling how many thousands of things we might do now that we had never done before. We need to spread our wings. And who knows, it could happen. “If music be the food of love…”

Reading Maestro Johnson’s own words on the overall Conspirare Christmas concept (below), one has to believe he is happiest when members of the audience let the words and the music work their magic, integrating with each personal life experience.

In my own case, for example, listening to the words and music of “I Could Have Danced all Night,” I was reminded of those heartbreakingly sad but joyful epilogues that Richard Strauss did so well at the end of his tone poems Ein Heldenleben, Don Quixote and An Alpine Symphony, and again, at the end of his opera Arabella. It is that deeply human “looking back” on a life of success and failure, of love gained and lost, and a final understanding of the meaning of life itself. “Yes,” says the soul to itself,  “I could have danced all night, and perhaps I will again.”  But nothing, we are reminded, lasts forever. Enjoy every minute of it while you can, and be glad you did. Never mind “what might have been.”

Whew! Pretty heady stuff for a Christmas concert…but then that is Conspirare Christmas – ideas, a spiritual journey, and music - people coming together to experience the joy of this magical amalgam, perhaps opening up in this time and place to a concept of unity that might well change their lives….and perhaps, for at least a moment, coming away with smiles not only on their faces, but in their hearts.

...With the Inimitable Craig Hella Johnson at the Helm
Maestro Johnson conducted most of the concert from the piano, accompanying the choir with facility and an amazing command of styles. Because his back was to them, many listeners probably didn’t realize that it was Johnson’s voice they heard in Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s All the Way, a beautiful song made famous by Frank Sinatra in a 1957 recording. Johnson’s rendition was as tender and lovely as any I have ever heard.

As the concluding number every year, I Could Have Danced all Night has become a tradition at Conspirare Christmas concerts. If I am not mistaken - although this 2013 arrangement was slightly different from the 2009 version that I heard – this year’s rendition was still slow and dreamy rather than bouncy and joyful as it is in the Lerner & Loewe musical; clearly, Johnson has his own view of what the words and music are trying to tell us. After the concert, and in response to my question, he told me why he chose this song – in no way a Christmas piece – as the finale for all “Conspirare Christmas” concerts:

The "Dance" in the Maestro's Own Words…
“Conspirare Christmas is a Mischung that reflects a great breadth of human experience. Each year’s program is a “dance” between poetic text from different centuries, musical pieces and styles, and different perspectives and traditions.  Originally, around the time I first arranged this setting of I Could Have Danced All Night, I was reading poetry of T.S. Eliot (photo:right). It is meant to evoke what Eliot captures in these lines from the Four Quartets:  “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is[.]”

I Could Have Danced All Night quickly became a tradition our audiences look forward to each year. At Conspirare we like to keep things fresh, current and new, and also value the place of tradition during the holiday time. Conspirare Christmas is a place where we acknowledge traditions, and this is one of ours.”

The last Conspirare Christmas concert I attended was in 2009. My only negative memory of that concert then was the fact that the house lights were so low that it was impossible to read the text in the brilliantly executed program guide. I don’t know how things were done in ’10, ’11, and ’12, since I missed those concerts, but here we were again in 2013, with a carefully conceived and executed program book that gave us the entire evening’s Christmas music narrative…and I would venture to guess that many in the audience who would have liked to follow the words along with the music of the evening’s enlightening spiritual journey, had difficulty doing so…for lack of “light”. Ironic.

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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