Inside Conspirare: A Different Kind of Chorus

Choruses have a real chance to be innovators and maybe help lead the way for all the arts.

Say the word chorus, and what images come to mind? A group of singers dressed in black? Holding black folders? Standing in sections in rows on risers? Singing all the standards with another piece thrown in for variety?

“Tradition is a good thing,” says Ann Meier Baker, president and CEO of Chorus America. “But in today’s changing environment, with varying appetites for music and entertainment, from different generations of people who have new expectations, we have to step back periodically and ask, ‘What else could we do, what could be different, what new idea could we try to stay fresh and relevant?’”

Craig Hella Johnson, artistic director of Conspirare, a professional chamber group in Austin, Texas, has been asking these kinds of questions throughout his career, but began asking them in earnest some 13 years ago.

He had programmed Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus’s The Tears of St. Peter, an intimate dialogue in 21 movements, in which Jesus and Peter explore the impact of betrayal on their friendship.

“Renaissance music can be like choral wallpaper,” says Johnson, “like what you might hear walking in a cathedral in Europe. It’s nice atmosphere but we have no real connection to the music itself.”

So he decided to try an experiment. He asked Cynthia Clausen, a gospel and jazz musician who is a frequent collaborator with Conspirare, to sing interpolations between movements.

“So, just before we start, Cynthia stands up and sings, ‘He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land,’ and we bolted right into the first madrigal,” Johnson recalls. “Something behind me suddenly felt different—that the audience got it.”

That was the beginning of what became the “collage” programs, most on display in Conspirare’s wildly popular Christmas at the Carillon holiday concerts, which seamlessly interweave popular songs, classical repertoire, and new commissions in a thought-provoking and moving musical journey.

In Johnson’s creative world, the text is paramount and everything is a resource. So a text from the Beatles talks to Lassus, a text from a 13th-century mystic talks to the text of a song by Annie Lennox, Leonard Cohen comes alongside Palestrina.

“If it didn’t work, it would be cheesy,” admits Kathlene Ritch, a soprano who has sung with the group since 1994. “But the way Craig masterfully interweaves them, it works. It is not just, ‘Aren’t these songs cool together?’ It’s, ‘What is he trying to say?’”

What Johnson is trying to say is something about our interconnectedness as human beings—and music as a way to make that connection felt at the heart level. A woman, whose musical tastes run from Nine Inch Nails to Arvo Pärt, tells of listening to three Conspirare CDs while trapped for four hours on an airport runway.

“The music saved me,” she says. “Lo, How a Rose intertwined with The Rose [Bette Midler song]? So audacious. So beautiful. So healing.”

“We laugh about these collage concerts,” says Pam Elrod, an alto who joined Conspirare in 2003. “Craig says, ‘Don’t try this at home.’ It is a real art. But wouldn’t it be great if choral music could become something that was able to speak to more than just a select audience? We have to realize that in order to do that, we have to be inclusive and creative, but not pander. That is what he has succeeded in doing, and it is ridiculously hard.”

Conspirare’s experiment in bridging secular and sacred, popular and classical, is drawing new audience members and earning the ensemble an international reputation. They recorded a one-hour special for PBS, which aired nationwide. Their album, Threshold of Night: Music of Tarik O’Regan, received two GRAMMY nominations—for Best Choral Performance and Best Classical Album, the first time a choral recording was nominated in both categories. And, the group is signed with the Harmonia Mundi label, virtually insuring a worldwide audience for its recordings.

Conspirare has not been immune to the challenges that arts organizations face in these trying financial times. Its nearly $1 million budget supports a small chamber group, a symphonic chorus that performs the traditional choral repertoire, and a children’s chorus program.

Contributions were down last year, “but amazingly enough, we are not seeing declining ticket sales,” says Erich Vollmer, Conspirare’s executive director. “People want to hear the kind of music we have to offer.”

Innovation is not for the faint of heart, but the payoff can be huge, for both performers and audiences. “I think it starts with the vision of one person,” say Vollmer.

“I’m not saying that what Craig does is the only way to achieve innovation. That’s what worked for Conspirare. It is a challenge for any choral group that wants to turn that corner, but obviously it starts with the vision and the talent of the artistic director.”

“One of the great things about choruses is that we are flexible,” says Baker. “An art museum has a building to maintain, for example, and an orchestra has a lot of fixed costs that can limit its ability to experiment. But choruses can have, potentially, the real chance to be innovators. We can flex and try something new from time to time. We can really be creative and maybe help lead the way for our organizations, our art form, and for all the arts.”

This article is reprinted from The Voice, Spring 2009.