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Songs From the Heart

craig johnson conducting choir

Songs From the Heart

By Dan R. Goddard

Craig Hella Johnson says his style reflects the way people listen to music today

Watch Conspirare perform "I Love You / What a Wonderful World"

Dr. Craig Hella Johnson, Texas State University School of Music professor of practice, celebrated last spring when Conspirare, the Grammy-winning Austin choral group he founded in 1991, was named a 2019 Texas Medal of Arts winner by the Texas Cultural Trust, joining luminaries such as actor Matthew McConaughey, singer Boz Scaggs, and Broadway star Jennifer Holliday.

“I feel very privileged to be working with Texas State,” Johnson says. “The energy and enthusiasm of the students is fantastic. I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of a lot of good people who have been working on building the university’s music programs. I want to continue to expand and innovate, to really stretch the envelope of what’s possible in a choral group performance.” 

Conspirare has been on a national tour performing Johnson’s Grammy-nominated three-part oratorio, “Considering Matthew Shepard,” a tribute to the young gay University of Wyoming student who died days after being brutally beaten during a 1998 hate crime. Shepard’s family invited Conspirare to perform at the remembrance service when his ashes were interred, which took place in October at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. 

“To be invited to perform at the National Cathedral was incredibly important and moving to us,” Johnson says. “Composing ‘Considering Matthew Shepard,’ I wanted to create — within a musical framework — a space for reflection, consideration, and unity around his life and legacy. It became an immensely meaningful journey for me, blending styles such as polyphony, Gregorian chant, and the blues. Texas State was one of the first universities to perform the work in 2017, and I think that shows how committed the university is to create a first-class music program.”

Johnson has been lauded for his “collage” programming style, combining music and poetry in a blend of sacred and secular, classical and avant garde, and classical and popular styles. Considered one of the most innovative choral directors in the country, Johnson says his style reflects the way people listen to music in the era of Spotify and Pandora.

“They’re doing an iPod shuffle or downloading mixtapes,” Johnson says. “They’re bouncing around, listening to recommendations for music they might not have considered before that sends them down a new rabbit hole. Music isn’t so locked into different genres. There is much more crossover. Collage works especially well for large ensembles.” 

To encourage collaboration by student musicians, he created Sound Lab, open to all majors, designed to foster the kind of wideranging collaboration and improvisation required of contemporary professionals. Johnson, who became the first artist in residence at the School of Music in 2012, says he sees his role, besides as teacher and mentor, as being a liaison between the college and the professional music world.

“Especially in international playing and performing, you have to be able to draw from a lot of musical styles,” Johnson says. “We need to be able to ask questions about how sacred and secular, and classical and folk styles can work together. We need broader collaboration among a wider collection of musical styles.”

A Minnesota native, Johnson studied at St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minnesota; the Juilliard School; and the University of Illinois; and earned his doctorate at Yale University. With a National Arts Fellowship, he studied with Helmuth Rilling at the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart, Germany.

"I grew up in church singing because I was the son of a Lutheran minister, but I started out as a piano major,” Johnson says. “At Juilliard, I realized how solitary the life of a concert pianist is; I like the collaboration and contact with people involved in conducting. All through my university training, I was singing. After studying in Germany, I came back wanting to do something with choral performance. Now I see conducting as my day job. Composing, playing piano, and singing are what I do to be creative.”

He is the music director of the Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble and conductor emeritus of the Victoria Bach Festival, and has served as artistic director of San Francisco-based Chanticleer (1998-1999). A resident of Texas since 1990, he led the graduate program in choral conducting at The University of Texas at Austin from 1990 to 2001. The Texas Legislature designated him the official Texas State Musician for 2013.

Conspirare, which translates from Latin as “to breathe together,” won the Best Choral Performance Grammy in 2014 for “The Sacred Spirit of Russia.” Conspirare has released 12 albums on the Harmonia Mundi label, including Grammy nominees “Requiem,” “Threshold of Night,” “A Company of Voices: Conspirare in Concert,” and “Pablo Neruda: The Poet Sings.” The group has a total of eight Grammy nominations and one win.

In June, Johnson conducted the Texas State and Conspirare Choral Conducting Symposium for professional and nonprofessional choristers at the Texas State Performing Arts Center.