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December 5, 2011

On the Record: Conspirare's 'Sing Freedom'

If, like me, you value spirituals as highly as lieder, there is a new recording you'll want to grab.

If you're among those folks, bless their hearts, who can't stand spirituals for some pathetic reason, this CD may well make you a convert.

It's from an Austin-based professional choral ensemble called Conspirare that has been going strong for two decades.

The reasons for that success are evident throughout "Sing Freedom: African American Spirituals," released on the Harmonia Mundi label.

To begin with, Conspirare, led by its founder Craig Hella Johnson, is a first-rate choral force, boasting impeccable articulation, intonation, diction and rhythmic clarity, not to mention a warm, seamless blend.

What seals the deal is the exquisite musicality these choristers offer in a rewarding assortment of well-known and more obscure spirituals.

Spirituals have ...

multiple layers of meaning, from the purely devotional to the political. They represent the voice of an oppressed, yet hopeful, people. They spring from a specific faith and speak to a cruel period of American history, but they are also universal and timeless.

Those qualities glow throughout this recording, which features classic choral arrangements and some notable recent ones, including harmonically rich, haunting treatments by David Lang ("Oh Graveyard") and Tarik O'Regan ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"). There's room, too, for a kinetic new spiritual,"Freedom Song" by Robert Kyr.

The CD demonstrates the rare expressive power in this noble musical genre, and the remarkable ability of Conspirare to express it to compelling effect.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:31 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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