The Music and Voices ‘Washes Over Me’
When I hear Austin’s claim to being the “Live Music Capital,” I think of festivals and clubs and lounges and theatres. Seldom, if ever, do I think of choirs and churches. That all changed Friday night when I encountered my first Conspirare concert: “A New Year’s Conspirare Classic” at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church (W. 15th St.) in Austin.
Unfortunately, I missed the pre-concert talk, which will occur again only on Sunday. Fortunately, I sat next to native Austinite Becky Clark, a chorale groupie and aspiring vocalist who raised my appreciation for the choir. Impressive enough is the fact that Conspirare, now in its 18th season, has been nominated five times for Grammy Awards.
These 44 voices – a large chamber choir, not symphonic size – are drawn from some of the finest all around the country, and often graciously housed in private Austin homes when they are in town. I expected the impressive sanctuary with its steel columns, plaster, bricks, stained glass, slate floors and contemporary chandeliers would not be kind to this acoustic-only performance. The cello, bass, piano and harpsichord would be harsh. Nothing to soften the sound. Wrong!
It was an awesome spectacle/auricle of sound. No sexy lighting. In fact, it was harsh, which dampens the mood a bit, but made it possible to read the texts and translations of the almost totally German-language program. But the words are as poetic as the voices are melodic and harmonious. They’ve been carefully chosen and blended under the guidance of Craig Hella Johnson, Artistic Dir. & Conductor. And the human voice is, as I’m so clearly reminded this night, one of the true, beautiful instruments of music.
You could close your eyes and imagine being in a Gothic cathedral on a cold snow night in old Cologne. And the voices soared, nearly always anchored by the magnificent basso profundo of Glenn Miller. (No, not that one. This one.)
Pieces by Max Reger, Bach, Shumann, Strauss, Harry Frommerman and Brahms were punctuated by a short one – in English! – by Samuel Barber. But my favorite – perhaps because of the poetry – was “Zigeunerleben” by Robt. Schumann. The highlight, however, was the rare performance of Strauss’ “Deutsche Motette,” with its beautiful, overlapping voices, notes and words – and it was, indeed, an inspiring first-time performance of this number by Conspirare.
In that setting the voices took wing, soared and resonated. The “vocal lights glowed sublime.” And the joy of the performers was reflected in their individual faces – all wearing black, save for a rainbow of pastel shawls worn by the women.
A tip of the reviewer’s pen to Anchor Pacific Corp. of Austin, which not only provides development support to Conspirare, but made a generous contribution of 100 tickets for those who’ve never heard a Conspirare concert.
So for an evening, I stepped out of my typical comfort zone . . . no German heritage required . . . and truly enjoyed this choral performance. The house of worship was a most appropriate venue, after all, since most of the musical selections praise God, His Son, and love. Or as Ms. Clark so adroitly observed:
“The German (language) washes over me like waves on the Rhine.” And the warmth of the concert surely dispelled the chill that awaited outside St. Martin’s.
Preston Kirk, Spicewood TX
Greater Austin Creative Alliance