Conspirare is about to begin its new year with some very old music, and with a challenge: to deliver four unique concerts in three days.
Its "Renaissance and Response" festival, held Friday through Sunday , will celebrate complex and beautiful music that's rarely heard or sung .
Not satisfied to simply sing this ancient music, Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare have enlisted lauded composer Robert Kyr for a 21st-century response. And so each of the four concerts will feature a world premiere.
"We never really get to hear this music," says Johnson, who says that the modern listener is often detached from the subtleties of Renaissance music.
Both Johnson and Kyr agree that this music has been misunderstood, often sounding overly subdued. "I thought, I just don't want to have another experience where people are hearing this only as background atmosphere," Johnson says.
In the hands of two choral masters, one should expect the music of the Renaissance to come very much alive.
On Friday, the festival opens with the music of Josquin des Prez (1450-1521), the most heralded composer of his generation and an early master of vocal polyphony (many voices).
"It's stunning music. I consider him second only to Bach. It's just incredibly beautiful," Kyr says.
Kyr, a lifelong Josquin scholar, has worked to create a score that's more accurate than any to date, one that removes text and notes added erroneously by later scholars.
"The problems are great," Kyr says of the existing editions. To create a more authentic edition, he worked only "with the materials the composer u2026 had in his day."
The choir will then return to the modern day, premiering Kyr's "Toward Dawn," a webbed tribute that plays with two of Josquin's pieces, including Josquin's tribute to his own teacher.
From Josquin, Conspirare travels in chronological order, moving a generation or more in each concert.
Works by Orlandus Lassus (1532-1594), another Franco-Flemish composer of polyphony, are featured in the first of Saturday's two concerts. The evening concert, "A Flowering in Spain," features works by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611).
Also on Saturday, Kyr's "From the Abyss" and "Santa Fe Vespers" respond to Lassus, and "A Time for Song" responds to Victoria, with soloists David Farwig and Abigail Lennox.
Then on Sunday, Conspirare presents "And Then Came Bach," a seven-part cantata that imitates Bach's method of borrowing from his own pieces. In Kyr's response, he has integrated text and music from pieces by all four Renaissance composers to bring these early polyphonists together.
Kyr is a fascinating man who moves to his own tune. He was profiled earlier this year by NPR's Austin-based correspondent, John Burnett, as the reporter's car broke down in an isolated New Mexico canyon.
Burnett was making his way to visit the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, home to Benedictine monks, where he met Kyr, who travels there several times each year to compose.
"It's a nice counterpoint to the rest of my life," Kyr says.
The other side of Kyr's life revolves around the University of Oregon, where he teaches composition and is soon to become president of the university senate.
Kyr will also set the stage for each concert through lighting and other surprises he will not yet reveal. Friday's concert will be candlelit to approximate the ambiance of Josquin's own day.
Most concerts will be preceded by a short lecture by Kyr, a chance to shine more light on little-known composers.
And knowledge is the goal. Johnson hopes the audience will experience "a variety and a robustness in the singing style that they might not expect," and not the "blanket of sameness" that's often thrown over Renaissance music.
"We are forgoing the desire to be able to polish every last phrase in a way we might like," Johnson says. There is simply too much music.
Instead, choral music fans should come prepared to be emotionally immersed in the work of each night's featured composer, to hear "independent lines that are moving in amazing, intricate ways," says Johnson.
"I have been startled, still, after all these years, that this repertoire is so vast and so full of jewel after jewel after jewel." This is music for "our interior world," says Johnson, music that invites contemplation, that "very beautifully, very powerfully calls us to the interior."
‘Renaissance and Response: Polyphony Then and Now'‘Early Voice: The Music of Josquin Des Prez,' 8 p.m. Friday. (7 p.m. preconcert talk by Robert Kyr) ‘Defining Mastery: The Music of Orlandus Lassus,' 4 p.m. Saturday. (3 p.m. preconcert talk by Kyr) ‘A Flowering in Spain: Work for Multiple Choruses by Tomás Luis de Victoria,' 8 p.m. Saturday. ‘And Then Came Bach,' 3 p.m. Sunday. Technically sold out.
Where: St. Martin's Lutheran Church, 606 W. 15th St.
Information: 476-5775, www.conspirare.org