- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
In high school, Craig Hella Johnson was the piano man. You know, the talented teen who sat down to tinkle the ivories at the drop of a hat.
The future director of Conspirare, Austin’s professional choir, once slowed down the tempo of the high school song during the senior banquet.
“The cheerleaders on the front row were in tears,” Johnson recalls decades later. The arrangement proved to him the potential impact of an unrushed, thoughtful, heartfelt rendition of a familiar song.
He’s still doing that sort of thing, particularly during “Conspirare Christmas,” which has blended sacred and secular music for a heavenly effect since 1994.
The tradition that combines choral and solo sounds returns Dec. 9-14 to two local venues, the Long Center and the Carillon, along with stops in Houston, San Antonio and Victoria, accompanied by this year’s guest artist, Carrie Rodriguez.
“It’s my favorite night of the year and the official start of the holidays,” says Conspirare fan Wendi Blum Kushner, former chairwoman of the Austin Opera board of directors. “It’s an evening of pure magic.”
This Christmas story
Without verbal introductions to each piece, “Conspirare Christmas” moves seamlessly from genre to genre, often starting with a Christian chant, bleeding into a familiar or altered carol or hymn such as “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,” then tripping through traditional music from Africa and Latin America, pop songs, gospel, folk, jazz, blues, hip hop and onward.
Some of the most illuminating revelations, however, come in the arrangements of Broadway show tunes that expose completely new meanings.
“So many of the fantastic show tunes are about love,” Johnson says. “It can be about loving a person, yes, or is it also about divine love, about God in me and in you? You can take away a romantic meaning or a broader meaning.”
For most of the past 15 years, a signal that the show was winding up came with a carefully measured version of Lerner and Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady.”
“I was jogging around what was then Town Lake Trail and the melody ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ was haunting me, would not leave my brain,” Johnson says. “I was playing with the idea that these concerts were an internal dance — a dialogue between musical styles, between texts and writers from various centuries, between listeners from various backgrounds and traditions — all merging together in this mystical Eternal Now.”
The next day, Johnson went running again and the melody came back to mind, this time woven into fragments of the Christmas carols that are now part of the Conspirare arrangement.
“I went home and roughed out a sketch for this setting and we still use the rough sketch today,” he says, “along with a few other cleaned up parts.”
Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that “Conspirare Christmas,” which embodies so much of Austin’s open way of thinking, is treated by some audiences as intrinsically sacramental.
“If we are talking about really bringing people together, that’s got to mean looking outside my religion, outside my denomination, outside my culture,” he says. “To some, that’s heresy. To me, it’s just another way of saying that Love, or God, is so much bigger than us and love is so much bigger than us and yet living in each of us.”
“Conspirare Christmas” was born out Johnson’s unstoppable curiosity and a desire to make holiday musical experiences to be as inclusive as possible, as well as to explore the border between the sacred and the secular.
“What would shrink the distance between audience and performers?” he asked. “What would connect with people who don’t have the same musical experiences?”
These sort of meditations have guided Johnson from a young age.
The son of an American Lutheran Church preacher, Craig Hella Johnson, 55, was born in Brainerd, Minn., of “Fargo” and Paul Bunyan Land park fame.
He studied at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., home to the noted St. Olaf Choir. He continued his training at the Juilliard School in New York City, Bach Academy in Germany, University of Illinois, and Yale University, where he earned his doctorate of musical arts while exploring the choral works of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
Immediately after graduation, he joined the choral program at the University of Texas as a teacher and within a year he took over school’s choral activities, previously directed by Morris Beachy for decades.
In 1992, he founded the New Texas Festival, which like “Conspirare Christmas,” aspired to combine all sorts of vocal arts, some performed in nontraditional venues.
Ever creative, he found ways to ground the festival and, later, the Christmas show in a tight professional choir, while adding all sorts of experiments and collaborations, such as, during the festival, a gospel choir performing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” alongside a classical ensemble at the Austin Convention Center.
“We wanted to know how our music can live together,” Johnson says of the collaboration. “I grew up with a lot of interests, you see. I had an extraordinary piano teacher and a great organ teacher, but I also listened to what was on the radio. That’s part of the soil we are born into.”
A church organist by the seventh grade, he also felt free to improvise from an early age.
“The church was a musical playground,” he says. “But what was sacred and what was secular? It was disturbing to me that only music that belonged to specific religious traditions was called sacred.”
Respectful of structure and craftsmanship, he comes from a traditional, Germanic, canonical background.
“Yet from a human standpoint, from a heart standpoint, the genre divisions bothered me,” he says. “Music should embody freedom, not ‘our music is better than your music.’”
An Austin breakthrough in this effort to marry different styles came alongside future frequent musical partner Cynthia Clawson, a Grammy Award-winning recording artist, perhaps best known for singing the hymn in the movie, “The Trip to Bountiful.” Before he approached Clawson, Johnson had been working on Orlando di Lasso’s “Tears of St. Peter,” which depicts the saint’s denials of Christ.
“The dialogue comes across in a very intimate and personal way, really like between two friends,” he says. “But to 99 percent of the audience, the music would come across like choral wallpaper.”
So, Clawson, who had sung at Johnson’s late partner’s funeral in 1998, joined the “Tears of St. Peter” performance by singing Lennon-McCartney’s “Nowhere Man” and other interpolations from jazz, pop and art songs. The performance took place at the Carillon, a former convent for cloistered nuns on Exposition Boulevard, which is where “Conspirare Christmas” took off with Clawson as the first guest artist.
“It was a beautiful experience,” Johnson recalls. “All of a sudden, the audience was with us. I had never felt that at a classical concert before. They were with us to the end. I later talked to five of my musicologist friends and, to a person, all were very moved by the experience after having been skeptical.”