Tonight I had the pleasure of attending, and participating in, a "Community Sing" with five-time grammy nominated choir, Conspirare. The FREE event, hosted by Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute and sponsored by Target, took place at the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and was part of the Center's February programming in conjunction with Black History Month. (See post following this one about making the most of your public library...).
Conspirare is a national ensemble, based in Austin, Texas, but made up of professional singers from across the country and Canada who often come together just days (or a day!) before performances to rehearse with each other. During tonight's Community Sing, renowned conductor Craig Hella Johnson led the chorus and the audience in deeply moving hymns and spirituals such as "Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal,"arranged by Alice Parker, and "Soon-ah Will Be Done (a-with the troubles of the world)," arranged by William Dawson.
As I sat with approximately 150 attendees in the auditorium of the Schomburg Center, Conspirare members (29 singers in total at this performance) slowly emerged from backstage and surrounded us, sopranos, altos, tenors and bases, all singing Carly Simon's "Let the River Run." Mr. Johnson then invited the audience to participate as he worked on some warm-up exercises with the group, such as singing "tip of the tongue the teeth the lips" throughout a musical scale. As we then turned to musical arrangements, we worked on syncopation, dynamics and harmony, listening to parts from the chorus members that surrounded us, or creating our own. The conductor quoted African-American songwriter, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and told us that, "When we sing, we announce our existence."
Such beautiful music was being made as I both sang and listened to the collective voices, those of the Conspirare members as well as audience members, rising up together in song. We were informed that the name "Conspirare" is derived from Latin words meaning "to breathe together," and that the focus of the performance was to share our song, and our hearts, with each other, with these strangers, to sing with our "community." Each song produced such an intense musical and spiritual experience for me that I had constant chills throughout the evening.
This amazing group also treated the audience to some songs for which they went on stage and sang out to us. Highlights included spiritual "Hard Trials,"arranged by Mr. Johnson himself, and featuring soloist Nicole Greenidge in a song inspired, in part, by the story of a woman recalling her childhood as a slave, and a "mash-up" of spirituals "Soon-ah Will Be Done," and "I Wanna Die Easy," the latter also arranged by Mr. Johnson. Soloists for the mash-up were Matt Alber and Abigail H. Lenox. Ms. Lenox's beautiful tone and stage presence for "I Wanna Die Easy" were haunting as she portrayed an enchanting pain that may otherwise have been hard to convey without the poetry of music.
After a requested encore spiritual, "Walk Together Children," arranged by Moses Hogan, was performed, Conspirare received a well-deserved standing ovation from the crowd.
A member informed me that Conspirare's Community Sings in Austin can draw as many as 600 people, a fact that does not at all surprise me. If you missed out on tonight's performance, you have ONE MORE opportunity to see them/sing with them in New York, tomorrow, February 24, at 7pm at Jacobi Medical Center, located at 1400 Pelham Pkwy S, in the Bronx.