Vocal professor performs, wins Grammy with Austin choral ensemble

Grammy-winning artists are often thought of as high-end pop-stars, rock icons and rhythm and blues legends. However, Sam Houston State University is home to one professor who is now in the illustrious category of Grammy winners.

Adjunct instructor of voice Melissa Givens, D.M.A., is a member of Conspirare, an Austin-based choral ensemble. The group won the 2015 Grammy for Best Choral Performance of “The Sacred Spirit of Russia.”

Givens said the ensemble has worked on the series for more than two years and preparation required familiarization with various Russian pieces and composers.

“This is a concert series that we did in January-February of 2013,” Givens said. “It’s a set of liturgical pieces that are supposed to emulate the progress of Russian Orthodox Church service. Some of these are works that people have been doing for years, like some by Tchaikovsky, Grechaninoff and Rachmaninoff.”

Givens said the music performed required the skills of a particularly gifted section and soloist, whom many people found as a highlight of the concert series.

“[Russian liturgical music] is really bass heavy,” Givens said. “We have a really crack bass section including a gentleman named Glenn Miller, who is our basso profundo and sings super super super low. We did a piece that featured him as well called ‘Do Not Forget Me in My Old Age’ that people kind of got off on. It’s just amazing to hear those low notes come out of a human.”

Many of the arrangements performed were sung in Russian, a feat Givens said was foreign to many of the ensemble’s performers.

“We coached the Russian with a gentleman named Vladimir Morosan,” Givens said. “He runs Musica Russica, which is a publishing house that specializes in Russian liturgical music. We premiered several arrangements at this concert and he came down and helped us with the Russian, Slavic and Church Slavonic. A lot of us had not sung in Russian before, but several of us had.”

Givens said the timeline from preparation to final recording and release of the concert series lined up to where the works were up for Grammy nominations in 2015.

“We recorded it with the great people at Harmonia Mundi, and of course that takes a couple of years before it comes out,” Givens said. “It came out in 2014, which made it eligible for this year’s Grammy’s.”

The ensemble has been nominated for six Grammy’s throughout its run, with this being its first win. Givens said the win has been well received by the members.

“We haven’t come down yet,” Givens said. “Facebook has kind of exploded since it was announced yesterday. Very few of us are all in the same town. There is a core of them that live in Austin. The rest of us are in Minnesota, Michigan and various parts of Texas. We’ve all been wishing we could be together to enjoy the moment.”

Givens said a few members from the ensemble attended the awards and received the prize.

“Our director and the bass who was the soloist in that one piece and one of our board members were able to go to Los Angeles and actually accept the award on our behalf,” Givens said. “We’re hoping to get a picture with it the next time we’re in Austin.”

Givens has been with the ensemble for more than a decade and has been an instructor at SHSU since August 2014.

“I’ve been singing with them since about 2002,” Givens said. “Our artistic director, Craig Hella Johnson, was briefly the artistic director of Houston Masterworks Chorus. His soloist for a gig had to cancel, and somebody suggested me. We got along swimmingly and he invited me to sing with what was then the New Texas Music Works, which was Conspirare’s first incarnation. We’ve been working together ever since.”

Apart from SHSU’s Grammy recipient, notable winners include Sam Smith – who took home four awards from his five nominations. Beyoncé, Beck, Pharrell Williams and Eminem were all awarded multiple Grammys and Disney’s “Frozen” took home two awards as well.

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