VAE music director set to depart after decade of success

After more than a decade with Cincinnati’s Vocal Arts Ensemble, music director Craig Hella Johnson is stepping down to pursue new professional opportunities.

In addition to taking a new creative role with the acclaimed Oregon Bach Festival, the Grammy-winning choral music conductor-composer has long expressed an eagerness to create more professional space for composing and other creative work. 

“The role at OBF is a factor,” he said, “but the desire for more space to compose was something I shared with the VAE team long before Oregon was even in the picture.”

Craig Hella Johnson

Johnson’s VAE tenure will conclude following performances of J.S. Bach’s B Minor Mass on March 9 and 10. The professional vocal ensemble spent the last few days working to communicate the news internally before announcing the details to the public.

“It has been a truly special gift and a source of great pride for me to be associated with the singers of VAE,” Johnson said.

“They consistently inspired and moved me with their artistry and dedication to this dynamic art form and to the broad and varied repertoire we explored together,” he continued. “I am so grateful to each of them and also to the many other creative collaborators with whom I have had the pleasure to work.”

A decade of Cincinnati choral music

Johnson, a Juilliard School-trained pianist, earned a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Yale University School of Music.

His professional career began in 1991 at the Victoria Bach Festival, where he continues as conductor emeritus. He also founded the critically acclaimed Conspirare vocal ensemble based in Austin,Texas, with whom he won a Grammy Award in 2014.

Johnson first came to Cincinnati in 2012 as a guest conductor for VAE, an organization dedicated to presenting passionate and innovative performances of choral music to Greater Cincinnati audiences.

“I fell in love with the artists of VAE and with Cincinnati,” he said of that initial trip. “It was a very special experience that ultimately led to my becoming much more deeply involved with the ensemble.”

Conductor Craig Hella Johnson leads VAE in a rehearsal of “Canticle” in 2016.
Conductor Craig Hella Johnson leads VAE in a rehearsal of “Canticle” in 2016.

Less than a year later, Johnson became only the fourth music director in the history of VAE since its founding in 1979. Its founder was Elmer Thomas, then the head of the choral department at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. CCM professor Earl Rivers led the ensemble from 1987-2008. Donald Nally was music director from 2009-2012, before moving on to Northwestern University and leading his Philadelphia choir, The Crossing, to multiple Grammy wins.

In his 10-plus years with VAE, Johnson has elevated the group’s reputation. He conducted VAE for the world premiere of Kile Smith’s “Canticle” in 2016, which the ensemble later recorded. VAE performed “Canticle” on the opening night of the Chorus America Conference that same year under his leadership.

Johnson led the organization through a variety of milestones, including the start of its record-setting residency at Memorial Hall. He also curated VAE’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2020.

A noted composer and arranger, he created the oratorio “Considering Matthew Shepard,” about the murder of a young gay man in Wyoming, in 2010. To date, choirs around the world have performed it, including VAE in both 2017 and 2019.

Attracting modern audiences – most not accustomed to an extended, nearly two-hour oratorio – was a tricky challenge, Johnson told Movers & Makers ahead of the 2017 Cincinnati performance. He said his impulse was to include various musical styles – even country-western, a nod to the story’s American West setting, plus Broadway, pop and classical, among others.

Craig Hella Johnson leading VAE in “Considering Matthew Shepard” in 2017.

“I wasn’t really looking to do a big crossover thing,” Johnson said at the time. “But it was an attempt to represent the breadth of the human community, the largest tent possible… for us to really heal and transform we need to do this together as a ‘we.’”

For his work, Johnson has earned 11 Grammy Award nominations. He also won the Michael Korn Founders Award for Development of the Choral Art from Chorus America in 2014.

VAE and Johnson plan to remain in close contact over the next few months while the organization works to address the leadership change.

“We are absolutely delighted for Craig,” said John Earls, chair of VAE’s board. “His extraordinary talent, depth of knowledge, artistic sensitivity, and unique ability to connect with people through music – attributes that have made his time with VAE so meaningful – will undoubtedly extend his musical impact on the world.”

Despite his impending departure, Johnson is going to help VAE plan next season’s programming.

“His plate continues to be very full, but we are thrilled that our relationship with Craig will continue,” Earls said.

A trip out West

In his new role, Johnson will lead what the Oregon Bach Festival described as its “modern choral initiatives.” He’ll work alongside another new festival hire, Jos van Veldhoven, the longtime artistic director of the Netherlands Bach Society.

Van Veldhoven will guide the artistic vision of the Oregon Bach Festival Period Orchestra and the Berwick Academy for Historically Informed Performance training program.

Together, they’ll work to shape the half-century-old festival’s artistic vision, contribute to the development of its annual concert schedule, cultivate artist relationships and support the creation of new works and commissions. They also will play key roles in the recruitment of conductors, instrumental and vocal performers and educators.

The University of Oregon School of Music and Dance operates the festival.

“It is with great joy and profound gratitude that I join Oregon Bach Festival,” Johnson said.

“This specially designed OBF framework of seeking artistic sparks and inspiration from a circle of collaborating creatives feels fresh, vibrant and truly contemporary,” he added. “I love this festival, and the time feels so right for this kind of collaborative dynamic structure.”

Craig Hella Johnson leading Conspirare in a 2016 performance of his “Considering Matthew Shepard.” Johnson will conduct the work with Cincinnati’s Vocal Arts Ensemble. (Photo by James Goulden for Conspiraire)
Craig Hella Johnson leading Conspirare in a 2016. (Photo by James Goulden)

University of Oregon President Karl Scholz praised Johnson and Van Veldhoven, calling them “universally respected and proven experts in their disciplines.” Scholz believes both conductors have the background and potential to boost the festival’s “worldwide prestige.”

Sabrina Madison-Cannon, dean of the UO School of Music and Dance, agreed.

“Craig and Jos are both collaborative, charismatic and wonderfully galvanizing musicians who embody OBF’s mission and values,” she said. “We are thrilled to partner with them.”

Both Johnson and van Veldhoven will participate in annual academic-year residencies at the University of Oregon. They will serve as festival leadership “designates” in 2024, then begin their tenures with programming and curriculum planning during the 2025 season.

Johnson also plans to continue his role as artistic director of Conspirare.

“I was welcomed warmly into this musical city by so many and supported throughout my time here,” Johnson said of his time in Cincinnati. “I am sad to close this chapter but I do so having established important musical relationships and friendships for which I am so grateful.”

He offered thanks to every member of the VAE circle and the choral community – his staff colleagues, board members, the generous patrons and his “extraordinary audience.” 

“I know VAE will have an exciting future and I look forward to following it all with great love and interest,” he said.

Vocal Arts Ensemble

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