comPassion: Conspirare explores narratives of suffering

by Craig Hella Johnson, Special to MPR
June 10, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas — Conspirare, which St. Olaf Choir director Anton Armstrong has called "the finest professional choir in the United States today," is presenting a two-week comPassion Festival in Austin and other Texas cities this month. Conspirare's artistic director and conductor Craig Hella Johnson writes about the genesis of this unusual festival theme and the works being performed.

This week, months of preparation began to manifest in sound as Conspirare artists arrived in Austin, Texas, from around the country to begin rehearsals for Conspirare's comPassion Festival. Over the coming ten days, Conspirare artists and listeners will be exploring musical passion settings. Compassion — to be with another's suffering, to be witness to it, to stand by it and be with — is the underlying premise on which this festival is built. The programs are built around a variety of musical Passion settings culminating in a cherished masterwork at the core of the choral repertoire, the St. Matthew Passion of Bach. The subject matter of these Passions is emotionally intense as we experience and explore the ways these narratives of suffering are expressed musically.

Conspirare's singers and audience will experience four passion settings. The festival opens with John Muehleisen's Pieta, continues with A Gnostic Passion by Brad and Doug Balliett, and concludes with the monumental St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach. The third passion story, which will be presented in a workshop performance several days before Bach's St. Matthew Passion, is that of Matthew Shepard. Considering Matthew Shepard (A Passion) is a new work I am composing as I explore the themes of comPassion.   Many people have asked why Conspirare is doing a festival of musical passions. Composer Robert Kyr sums it up perfectly: "None of these works are abstract reflections on the nature of a remote kind of 'suffering at a distance.' Rather, this music propels us into the heart of the human condition. While we are connected through the universal experience of suffering, it also presents us with an opportunity to develop compassion for each other, and ultimately, to abandon anguish and despair for hope and new life."

The musical passions we are performing tell the stories of well-known religious, historical, and cultural icons: Jesus Christ, Matthew Shepard, Jack Kipling. These settings are linked because they each encompass something even larger than the individual life depicted in the story. The Conspirare singers bring voice to some of humanity's deepest longings and feelings that so many of us share during the course of our lives.

These works create an opportunity for a great conversation — a vibrant exchange and a meaningful dialogue with beautiful, important works of art and with each other. With this festival, we are hoping to make a connection between these musical settings of witnessing another's suffering and how they might ultimately expand our sense of compassion in the modern world, impact our actions with each other, and provide an opportunity to reflect on how we love each other.    Brilliant composer and gifted teacher Robert Kyr will be weaving threads through the fabric of this two week festival with pre-concert talks and many forms of audience engagement. In a public forum, he will facilitate an exciting conversation about a new Passion setting he will be composing for the Conspirare Symphonic Choir. St. Olaf Choir conductor Anton Armstrong is also spending a week with us attending rehearsals and performances; you can view his moving personal response to what he has experienced.

We are opening our doors to all kinds of free opportunities for listeners to come closer to the music: open rehearsals, pre-concert talks, a post-concert conversation, forums for the creation of new Passion settings, workshop readings of a provocative new work, and a CD pre-release party for  Conspirare's Robert Kyr CD being released internationally on August 12. We are also excited to have John Muehleisen here for these performances of his Pieta and about a visit this week from Robert Bode, artistic director of Choral Arts in Seattle, the ensemble that premiered the work in 2012.

As a native Minnesotan, I am excited that Conspirare has started to make plans to perform in Minnesota in an upcoming season. Meantime, please visit for more information about the comPassion festival, future concerts, and all things Conspirare.

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