A Conversation with Craig Hella Johnson

Craig Hella Johnson is the Artistic Director and visionary leader of one of the greatest choral organizations in the United States. With an astounding six nominations, only a few weeks ago Conspirare won their first Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance.

It’s been a longtime dream of mine to collaborate with Craig and Conspirare, and that’s why it was such a thrill when Kathy Panoff, Director of Texas Performing Arts, invited us to lunch a few years ago to discuss a vision she had for an ambitious and totally unique collaborative project.

That project’s world premiere is now just a few weeks away. On April 18th at Bass Concert Hall, we bring together the Dublin Guitar Quartet, Texas Guitar Quartet and LA Guitar Quartet (also Grammy winners) to perform with Conspirare the premiere of a new work by superstar composer Nico Muhly. The work was commissioned by Texas Performing Arts for this occasion.

Tickets and information are online here.

I asked Craig a few questions about the project and wanted to share our conversation with you:

Craig Hella JohnsonMatthew Hinsley (MH): We’ve talked about working together for a long time. What do you think is magical about Austin Classical Guitar and Conspirare coming together in this project with Texas Performing Arts?

Craig Hella Johnson (CHJ): Well, magical is indeed the right word! Wow. For so long now, I’ve been inspired by ACG and the incredible range of things you all do. The broad range of opportunities is extraordinary—from the amazing professional concerts with world class artists to the dynamic programs you have for beginning guitarists from all walks of life. I feel that Conspirare shares these values with you—holding really high musical expectations for everyone involved and, at the same time, wanting to make the experience available to as many people as possible. You all have such a fresh and fun perspective, and this makes it a joy to collaborate.

So to combine the talents and vision of these organizations and to have it presented and curated by the incredible Texas Performing Arts series is truly special. It really took this essential partner—Kathy Panoff and Texas Performing Arts—to make the project possible. I am so grateful for her bold vision of creating new music for a choir of guitars and a choir of voices. This had been a long-time interest of mine—to explore this kind of texture play with the sounds of multiple guitars and voices, and it is exciting to see this come to fruition through such a significant commission.

MH: What excites you about Nico Muhly as a composer? What should we all know about this magnificent talent?

CHJ: Nico is just the bomb! Such an outrageously gifted composer, incredible craftsman, so intelligent. Although his urban, modern, fresh and bold voice is what so many people are responding passionately to these days, his music, for me, also feels deeply rooted in ancient traditions and gestures in a way that is compelling and can feel delightfully modern.

MH: You’ve had a chance to study the score. What can you tell us about what we might expect? Did anything surprise you?

CHJ: I really love it—it is an amazing score. I have already told him that I think it is a masterpiece, and I am not being hyperbolic when I say that. The textures and colors he has envisioned with these twelve guitars create a truly unique sound realm—like something we have not heard before. The vocal writing is first rate and carries such emotion. I feel that this will be a lasting piece in the repertoire. Beyond the fascinating compositional elements, I was surprised by how much the piece moved me, even just seeing it on paper. It really touched me.