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October 24, 2006

Conspirare very nearly flawless

San Antonio Express:

Few experiences in this world can equal the exquisite pleasure of hearing an impeccable chorus performing first-rate music in an ideal acoustical setting, under gifted leadership. In other words, Conspirare. The Austin-based professional chorus, founded and conducted by Craig Hella Johnson, visited San Antonio's St. Luke's Episcopal Church on Saturday to open a three-concert road season.

The program held three works, stylistically unlike one another but unified by a sense of the unification of love and divinity. Almost unbearably beautiful was Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur's "The Song of Songs," a 1953 setting in French of texts from that biblical text interwoven with a few New Testament passages in Latin.

Daniel-Lesur chose a more conservative path than did his close contemporary and colleague, Olivier Messiaen, but the harmonies in this work are no less astonishing and bracing for remaining within the tonal system. Rich, dense, vividly colored chords succeed each other in surprising ways, culminating in a glorious 12-part Alleluia that heaven itself might envy.

Alexander Gretchaninov's Vespers dated from 1912, three years before Rachmaninoff's more-famous setting of a slightly different selection of texts from the Russian Orthodox liturgy for the Easter Vigil. Musically, Gretchaninov's is more sensual, though fairly conservative harmonically, not far from the aesthetic of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov.

The program opened with Charles Stanford's brief but celestial Beati quorum via. Throughout, balances, intonation and ensemble precision were nearly flawless. In the Vespers, the 36 choristers included enough individual talent to enable Johnson to match each solo passage with a fully capable singer of appropriate vocal coloration a luxury that few other choral directors enjoy.

Johnson conducted everything with supple shaping of tempos and lines, and with a disciplined energy that always was related organically to the music. The venue was of particular interest because the year-old San Antonio Chamber Choir, also a professional ensemble, sang in the same space last month.

Heard in the same acoustical environment, albeit in different material, the new kid on the I-35 corridor fell almost imperceptibly below Conspirare's level in ensemble and intonation. Conspirare has more solo depth and a richer sound, as one might expect from 10 more singers. The local troupe's director, Scott MacPherson, differs more in character and in repertoire choices than in ability from his Austin colleague. With two such fine professional troupes in our midst, this area may be the best place in the nation for admirers of great choral singing.

Posted by acapnews at October 24, 2006 12:27 AM