Craig Hella Johnson is one of America’s most renowned choral conductors, known for his uncanny ability to make many voices sound like one.
“We honor a gay musician with a talent for bringing people together and whose personal journey teaches us that love always perseveres,” Llenas said.
In the interview, Llenas asked Johnson how he successfully manages to bring so many different voices together. In response, Johnson noted that “when you can create a space where people feel safe to express from their natural gift, authentically, that’s when the real, deepest beauty begins.”
It’s a lesson Johnson learned the hard way, though, Llenas reported.
Growing up a gay kid in a northern Minnesota mining town – as the son of a nurse and a pastor – Johnson’s journey to self-discovery was turbulent.
“I was confused and pretty terrified,” Johnson revealed to Llenas. “All the messages certainly at that time were just a big ‘no.'”
Johnson subsequently underwent gay conversion therapy.
On the experience, Johnson noted it was a “real indoctrination of [sic] some kind of fundamental part of you is not right — that’s a really brutal thing to experience.”
Now, through the power of his own pulpit, Johnson is on a mission to help others find their light.
In 1991, Johnson established a choir in Austin, Texas, called ‘Conspirare.’ By 2015 the group won a Grammy for best choral performance for their album, “Sacred Spirit of Russia,” and in 2019, Johnson was awarded the Texas Medal of the Arts.
“We want to give voice to the voiceless, and celebrate the common human family that we are,” Johnson said in his acceptance speech.
Long-time friend Sandra Derby described one of Johnson’s many gifts as his ability to encourage people to bring their whole selves to a performance.
“The way that singers give themselves over to the shape he gives to a song just penetrates right to the core,” she said.
Now, the group performs a project composed by Johnson called ‘Considering Matthew Shephard,’ a Grammy-nominated three-part oratorio meant to serve as an evocative musical response to the murder of a University of Wyoming student who was beaten, tortured, and left to die in a horrific anti-gay hate crime 23 years ago. The concert honors the life and legacy of Shephard.
“Sadly, that story is still very relevant,” Johnson said. “That piece was kind of my coming out as a composer.”
When asked by Llenas what message he would want to share with LGBTQ+ youth, the conductor replied, “Find the courage to love yourself so fully. You have something so beautiful and unique to offer; please offer it to the world, because the world is less if you don’t.”
Johnson has been with his partner Philip for 21 years. Years ago, they had a commitment ceremony and it was Johnson’s father, the pastor, who officiated.
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