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Christmas Music and Poetry

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Director Craig Johnson offers applause to Carrie Rodriguez at right Director Craig Johnson offers applause to Carrie Rodriguez at right

Few concerts compel one to consult a dictionary, but a Christmas concert held in Austin this week made this a (pleasurable) necessity.


The group that is now entering its 25th year of entertaining audiences in Texas is Conspirare, which literally means (in Latin) to breathe together. Artistic Director Craig Johnson made that more than an aspiration as he led a capacity audience at the Long Center in a group breathing exercise. Johnson said Conspirare began in “an intimate, trusting space: a small venue of 150 people.”


Trying to recreate that feeling in a venue holding 2,300 was his goal, one that can best be termed conspiration. I will save you from consulting the dictionary by defining this as a joint effort toward a particular end, and its similarity to conspirare is no coincidence. By merging the meaning of these two Latin-root words, Johnson achieved his goal, which was then expressed as “music and poems that speak to each other and speak to us.”


The finest example of this during the concert began with a few lines from the great 13th century Persian poet Rumi. It talks of “flowers open every night across the sky.” This segues effortlessly into the 15th century German Advent and Christmas hymn Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming that evokes a “flower bright, amid the cold of winter” thus combining Isaiah's prophecies about a rose and the German folkloric 'cold of winter.' A brilliant combination, but to appreciate the concert one must embrace the congeries of poetry and music presented by Johnson. His own composition, Holding Carol, again evokes the imagery of a flower and days that feel like winter, a chilly notion reinforced later in the concert by the traditional Catalonian carol, The Icy December.


The multifarious strands of the concert inevitably had a couple of bumpy transitions, such as the ballad I'll Se Seeing You immediately followed by a traditional Gaelic tune The Rune of Hospitality and then the foot-stomping Big Love. But the seamless segues permeating the concert offered ample compensation in a truly eclectic selection that also showcased the talents of guest artist Carrie Rodriguez, whose fiddle playing ranged from solemn to sassy. This singer-songwriter from Austin closed the concert with a vocal solo on the encore gospel tune Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air. I'm sure many people leaving the Long Center heard music up above as they departed this unusual and uplifting Christmas concert.


The beautiful voices of the 24 singing members of Conspirare are supported by Thomas Burritt on percussion and Mitch Watkins on guitar.


For more on the concert, please visit the website:






Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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