Remembering composer Conrad Susa, 1935-2013

by Philip Brunelle, Special to Minnesota Public Radio
November 22, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. — I received a call last night at midnight — Conrad Susa had passed away. He had not been well physically, but at 78 his mind was as keen as ever — and this man knew what music was about, still making his way to the San Francisco Conservatory to teach every day.

I first heard of Conrad when he composed incidental music for a 1968 Guthrie Theater production, Sergeant Musgrave's Dance. Then he was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera to compose an opera based on Ann Sexton's book Transformations, and I conducted the premiere with Ann and Conrad in the front row. That led to another Minnesota Opera commission, Black River, which I also conducted — a grand, three-act work. He was back in 1980 for the American Guild of Organists' convention here, commissioned to write a work for organ and brass (which he barely finished in time....a Susa trademark!).

Vern Sutton and I traveled to Houston where I conducted and Vern directed Conrad's church opera, The Wise Women, a charming story about the wives of the Magi. In the 90s, for VocalEssence, he composed his setting of Mexican songs, Carols & Lullabies, which has become the piece that choirs perform in December across America. In between there have been anthems and choral suites performed by many Twin Cities community and church choirs — at Christmas and throughout the year.

There was no one Susa style — there were many. All of them showed his innate ability to spin a melody, lift a phrase and leave listeners feeling that they had just heard something very special. I will miss him greatly.

Philip Brunelle is the artistic director and founder of VocalEssence, as well as the choirmaster-organist at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis.

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