composers symposium

Craig Hella Johnson, of the Austin-based Conspirare choral ensemble, led the American Composers Chorus.

Conspirare artistic director Craig Hella Johnson led the American Creators Chorus.


It seems fitting to perform brand new music with a brand new group. The 37-member American Creators Chorus was formed on June 28, giving the musicians only four days to prepare and then perform 11 new works by the emerging composers hosted by this summer’s Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium. But on Tuesday, July 2, they pulled it off, due to the skillful mentorship of visiting choral conductor Craig Hella Johnson, founder and artistic director of Conspirare, the Austin based “company of voices” drawn from around the country that has often performed music by Symposium director and University of Oregon music professor Robert Kyr.

Tuesday’s first installment of the symposium’s Living Music concert series featured new choral works, each 2-3 minutes long, created by young composers participating in this year’s ten-day gathering at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance in Eugene. The programing of short works provided the opportunity to hear a diversity of new music ranging from the traditionally religious “Ave Maria Regina Familiae” by Daniel J. Knaggs (Rice University) to the playful “Paper Boats” by Saunder Choi (Berklee College of Music).

ACC sang all the music a cappella except for “The Lord is My Shepherd” by William Gorton (Arizona State University) which included flute and piano accompaniment. Other performed works included “O Salutaris Hostia” by Robert Chastain (University of Oregon); “Sancta Maria” by David Sackmann (Gonzaga University); “Come, O Human Child” by Iris Ceulemans (University of Wisconsin); “I Shall Not Care” by Brandon Stewart (Marylhurst College) and two works by composers from the University of Oregon: David Eisenband’s “Who Has Seen The Wind?” and “Ah Sunflower” by Alexander Johnson.

I’ve not been personally fond of choral music and rarely include it in my selection of classical music. So I approached this event with some trepidation. To my surprise, I found myself fully involved in listening to these new compositions – most performed for the first time. My experience was greatly enhanced by Dr. Kyr, who asked each composer to introduce his/her work. To hear a composer describe what inspired a particular composition helped me as a listener to hear the piece within the context of why it was written.

“Father Myke’s Prayer” by Kitty Brazelton (Bennington College), for example, reminded listeners of the sacrifices made by those who perished in the September 2001 World Trade Tower attack. Father Mychal F. Judge, the chaplain of the Fire Department of New York, was the first certified fatality on that tragic day. This composition is a setting of Father Judge’s prayer for choir:

Lord take me where you want me to go
Let me meet who you want me to meet
Tell me what you want me to say
and keep me out of your way.


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