When we checked in with composer Robert Kyr last September, he was at Christ in the Desert Monastery in northern New Mexico, sitting at a creaky upright piano, composing harmonies for an ambitious choral project. I've been following this musical creation from inception to completion — and I have the final chapter.
The piece was recently premiered in Austin, Texas, by Conspirare, the acclaimed chamber chorus based in that city. The group had only four days of rehearsal to master the most challenging and lengthy composition most of its singers have ever encountered.
Wearing jeans and sipping bottled water, the vocalists stood before thick scores inside St. Martin's Lutheran Church in Austin. Robert Kyr — a prolific American composer of luminous choral works — sat in the front pew, straining to hear how his musical ideas sounded in practice.
Kyr was commissioned by Conspirare to compose several choral works as a 21st-century response to the music of four Renaissance and Baroque masters: Josquin des Prez, Orlando di Lasso, Tomás Luis de Victoria and Johann Sebastian Bach. They all wrote polyphonic music — literally, works for "many voices."
The composer creates the music. It is the job of the artistic director to shape and birth the performance; in this case, that person is Craig Hella Johnson. Under his direction, Conspirare has released nearly 20 CDs and earned five Grammy nominations. When his singers were in full voice, the impish Johnson seemed to vibrate like another vocal cord, straining and stretching and pulsating in his black sneakers.
Conspirare does not have a permanent membership: Johnson assembled these singers from all over the country to perform this concert series. They're a dream team. Yet they have only a few days to learn four concerts totaling five hours and 15 minutes of new music — a huge undertaking.
Johnson observed they would typically spend four days learning just one new composition: "We kind of joked when we first began," he noted, "that for every 10-minute piece we've got about eight minutes to rehearse it, so let's be really focused and efficient."
Kathlene Ritch, a soprano from Austin, agreed that Kyr's piece is a real challenge. "It's hard because there are so many parts, we're all changing keys at a different time," she observed. "And just when you feel like you've established a key, another choir group comes in and changes the key on you — and so you're having to grab a different one. It's beautiful, but it's hard."
On opening night, the singers waited upstairs in the choir room nervously. They gave each other backrubs and loosened their voices. And then, show time.
Nineteen singers dressed in black filed into the church, which was dark except for the glow of candelabras. The singers later complained that they could barely read their music, but the effect of Kyr's lighting, together with his music, was dreamlike.
It was uncanny to hear Conspirare perform the music that I witnessed Kyr compose five months earlier at the monastery in New Mexico.
During rehearsals in Austin, I asked Kyr if the music had changed much since he first wrote it down. "I have to say that the piece sounds almost identical to what I heard inwardly," he told me. "I think in part that's because I know Craig so well, and the singers so well, that I really had their sound inside of me when I was creating the work."
By the end of the concert series, a breathless writer for the Wall Street Journal had called Kyr's cantata Songs of the Soul "a powerful new achievement in American music."
But perhaps the greatest compliment was the response from the sold-out audiences who sat in mesmerized silence every night.
After the last show, fans went up to the composer in the foyer. "Magnificent, just sterlingly beautiful," said one. "I heard it last night, I wasn't planning on coming back, but it was so lovely!" exclaimed another. And still another told the composer, "That was wonderful. I've been waiting all my life to hear music like that."
For this marathon event, the singers had taken extraordinary care of their voices: not speaking except to sing, extra sleep, extra water, no alcohol.
At a private party later that night, they unwound and wolfed down corn-and-goat-cheese enchiladas, exulting in the afterglow of what they had done.
"Well, we just finished 523 pages of music, which is unusual for a weekend gig," noted Emily Lodine, a mezzo-soprano from Magnolia, Minn. "And I thought, 'I'll never get through this.' And we all did get through it. And it wasn't exactly perfect, but it was pretty darn perfect. And I'm from Minnesota — I'll take that."
For a single, intense week in January, this challenging music had become part of them — and now it was time to move on to the next project. Johnson seemed subdued. "Tonight after the performance I did have a fulfilled feeling," the conductor reflected, "but then, right on the heels of that, a quietness and a sadness letting it go."
Kyr, on the other hand, was ecstatic. He had bought 15 bottles of champagne for the occasion, and he raised his glass for the first toast of the evening. "The performance of my piece tonight was something I don't have words for," he told the musicians. "Craig and I came out of the hall and we looked at each other and held each other in silence. We couldn't say anything. And I just want to thank you all, every one of you, from the bottom of my heart for everything you've given to this and that you give on a daily basis to music as an art. Bravo!"
This is not goodbye: Conspirare will be recording some of the Kyr compositions that were premiered here.