Conspirare Christmas makes the season feel a little more normal
For some of us, “Conspirare Christmas” embodies the musical essence of the Austin holiday season.
The city’s Grammy Award-winning professional choir presents a singular experience: Simple, heartfelt songs from across the musical spectrum accompanied mostly by a single pianist, Craig Hella Johnson, also the group’s artistic director and a key tenor solo voice during these concerts, which go back to 1994 and Christmas at the Carillon.
This year, Conspirare Christmas is free and streamed through its website and YouTube. On screen, Johnson begins his own performance on the Long Center stage, as special-effects snow swirls around him. The other singers appear remotely in crisply rendered fragments of the screen. I have no idea how this visual and audio harmony was produced, but it is one of the most satisfying video translations of live performing arts that I’ve experienced during the pandemic era.
As in previous years, the 2020 concert starts with ancient songs, or at least ancient-sounding songs. This reassures the listener. We are connected with the past of so many traditions.
The theme of the whole show: Getting through the darkness of the night, apt for our times.
Almost immediately, however, Johnson breaks off to sing Peter Mayer’s “Looking for the Dove,” reminding us that we may hear pop, country, jazz, Broadway, hymns, spirituals, blues and world music. This particular song epitomizes the typical slow Conspirare Christmas song: a bit wistful or even melancholy, yet hopeful and loving.
Another typical Conspirare mood: joy.
It pops up first in “How Can I Keep from Singing,” and returns regularly during the 1 hour and 30 minute show, including a rousing and soulful version of “Joy to the World." Follow along: The concert program is available with complete lyrics at the Conspirare site.
It is important to remind the reader that this is primarily a showcase for the company’s smaller professional choir, not its symphonic choir or its youth choir, and hence every polished artist is capable of shining in the many solo or small-group parts.
Guest artists this year include operatic great Frederica von Stade and her granddaughter, filmed in a church setting, as well as Patty Griffin at the Continental Club, Carrie Rodriguez by a fire pit at night, Joyce DiDonato at home, along with members of the Dallas Street Choir, African Children’s Choir and Conspirare Symphonic Choir (as snowflakes).
At times during these annual shows, a soloist, or the entire choir, launches into a familiar pop song or an old spiritual, and one thinks: “This isn’t going to work. This arrangement is too pretty or too guileless.” Then, miraculously, the Conspirare artists bring it off because they deeply respect the music and lyrics.
And don’t worry, they also sing plenty of traditional carols, from “O Come, All Ye Faithful” to “Silent Night.”
The show ends, as always, with a slow, dreamy version of Lerner and Lowe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from “My Fair Lady.” As an arranger, Johnson is particularly adept at interpreting show tunes. This concert includes an affecting version of Strouse and Charnin’s “Tomorrow” from “Annie,” right on theme.
You’ll want to stream this free show again and again and again. And consider donating to Austin’s choral crown jewel.