African American Spitituals
Conspirare, Company of Voices, Craig Hella Johnson (Conductor)
Recorded at Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, Indiana (October, 2010) – 72’
harmonia mundi: HMU 807525 – Booklet with essays and translations in English, French and German
There is really no shortage of enjoyable recordings of African American Spirituals sung by outstanding choruses. From those by The Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers to the Robert Shaw Chorale, and many in between, this is a body of literature that has been celebrated and served well in past recordings. So what does this offering from Craig Hella Johnson’s Conspirare offer to set itself apart? An awful lot. “Sing Freedom!” is rivetingly programmed, engagingly performed and stunningly recorded.
This disc contains many of the popular spiritual arrangements that are the backbone of the repertoire, such as “Ain’-a That Good News!” (William L. Dawson) and “Plenty Good Room” (Kirby Shaw), but it also features several new arrangements of popular spiritual tunes by Conspirare’s Artistic Director Craig Hella Johnson, Tarik O’Regan and David Lang. The newer additions lend an element of the popular (in the best sense of the word) to the disc. Johnson uses smooth cluster harmonies, popular with young a capella groups, integrated with the familiar melodies. These jazzy arrangements, such as “Soon Ah Will Be Done/I Wanna Die Easy,” are fresh and full of empathetic spirit. Perhaps most effective of these new arrangements is “Hard Trials,” which features a heartbreaking solo by Nicole Greenidge. O’Regan’s “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is an ethereal arrangement of the famous melody deconstructed. Another treat is a new composition called “Freedom Song” by Robert Kyr. While being slightly overstated in intent, it’s a modern musical take on these themes that are hundreds of years old.
Enjoyable music and innovative arrangements aside, this music succeeds or fails on the commitment and ability of its performers. Conspirare displays stunning versatility, raw vocal ability and, most importantly, a real commitment to the emotional core of this music. They sing with an impressive authenticity, often letting the music dictate the tone, and push it to their vocal limits, such as at the end of “Walk Together Children.” A wonderful example of their versatility of tone comes in the back-to-back pieces “Soon Ah Will Be Done/I Wanna Die Easy” and “Soon Ah Will Be Done.” The former (a Johnson arrangement) is sung with a straight, jazzy tone, giving an appropriate clean sound to Johnson’s tight harmonies. The latter, the traditional William L. Dawson arrangement, features a completely different tone: dark, covered and even muffled, transitioning to rich and raw. This variety of style and tone, combined with the variety of arrangements, makes for such an enjoyable and compelling disc that one can’t help sing along.
Finally, the recorded sound is engrossing. SACD surround sound listeners will hear a lot of music coming from the rear channels, more than the usual ambient noise and reverberation. It is tastefully done, however, and the listener is enveloped in the sound. It is a really nice recording in this regard, as it makes the entire performance feel involving rather than gimmicky, as can occasionally happen with too much surround sound. Soloists are often dead center, and brilliantly flanked by the accompanying choir. This is a great reference recording for SACD surround sound done well.
If you add up all of these exemplary qualities, you get a recording as outstanding as this one in all aspects. It is artistically impeccable, technically brilliant, and, most of all, rewarding and immensely fun to listen to.