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Bach Festival artistic director earns statewide award

By Jessica Rodrigo
April 30, 2013 at 11 p.m.
Updated April 29, 2013 at 11:30 p.m.

Craig Hella Johnson, artistic director of the Victoria Bach Festival, leads the audience in singing along during the "Big Sing," the opening concert of the 2010 Bach Festival. Johnson was named Texas State Musician for 2013.

Victoria Bach Festival

For more details about the upcoming weeklong event or the full schedule, visit victoriabachfestival.org.

Victoria Bach Festival has been under the same steady hand since 1992, but it wasn't until recently that the festival's artistic director was recognized as the Texas State Musician.

The Texas Commission on the Arts awarded Craig Hella Johnson, 50, the title Tuesday in Austin.

"It was a lovely honor," he said before the ceremony. "I was thrilled to learn of it and really am humbled by it."

The commission awards Texas artists in music, poetry and visual arts who have contributed to the state and the advancement of their respective art forms and who have built reputations for themselves across the state while also demonstrating the state's diversity and high-quality artistic offerings, according to the commission's website.

Gary Gibbs, executive director of the Texas Commission on the Arts, said the process of choosing the individuals starts with nominations from the public.

With the help of other professionals in the state - poets, musicians, artists - the commission is left with a list of 10 possible candidates.

"We receive hundreds of nominations for this," Gibbs said.

He said it takes about six months from the nomination process to select one person for each category.

Once the group selects the top nominations, the list moves on to a government-appointed committee that will chose the winner.

"It's all done in a closed session," he said. "All I can say is that the committee felt he (Johnson) had achieved great artistic reputation that brought benefits to the organizations he works with and to the state."

The artistic director of the Victoria Bach Festival - and Grammy-nominated artist - is also the founder and artistic director of Conspirare, an Austin-based professional choral ensemble.

Nina Di Leo, executive director of Victoria Bach Festival, is no stranger to the process, she said. A few years ago, she submitted a nomination for Johnson to the commission and was happy to see that others thought so highly of Johnson to nominate him.

"It was fun to finally see that come to fruition," she said. "He is most deserving."

In April, Johnson added another title to his musical resume. He was named the music director/conductor of the Vocal Arts Ensemble in Cincinnati. Johnson said in a press release that he developed a strong connection with the singers and with Cincinnati's rich musical traditions during a visit and while serving as a guest conductor there.

"It's just another opportunity to share his ability with a group of singers," Di Leo said. "I'm excited for him and proud of him for getting that appointment."

She said that the recent appointment with the Ohio ensemble will not affect Johnson's work with the Bach Festival and that Johnson's work with new voices and musicians may inspire him to do some new things.

Johnson's passion for music started at a young age when he learned to play the piano by ear. He went on to study music and directing at Juilliard and Yale and attended school in Germany to hone his skills that eventually would earn him accolades and recognition as an international musician.

Texas loves its music, he said.

"It's a tremendous honor to be included amongst the kind of musicians represented in the past," Johnson said. Other artists honored include Texas favorite Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.

Johnson said he is proud to be the second musician who was a classical artist chosen for the award.

Michael Hummel, president of the board of directors for the Victoria Bach Festival, describes Johnson as an outstanding, talented person.

"Musicians who have performed with the Bach Festival - they simply can't say enough good things about Craig," he said.

His work with Conspirare and the Bach Festival has given him a chance to expose music lovers to something they might not think they would enjoy.

"I'm very interested in increased awareness and engagement with classical music," Johnson said. "A lot of folks may feel that they're not as closely connected with classical art forms."

The weeklong Victoria Bach Festival blends genres and styles of classical music that he believes all ages can learn to love. There are shows designed for children, shows including music from famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven and performances from area musicians. The musical festival is an important part of the region, Hummel said, because it adds to the quality of life and creates a positive image for Victoria.

"One of the things that really makes him a wonderful ambassador for the state of Texas is his openness to different styles of music," said Di Leo "His breadth of talent and also musical choices makes him a nice representative of Texas."

Johnson hopes his recognition will bring more music lovers to Victoria through the Bach Festival.

"I hope that ultimately, music can be a powerful reflection of the creative, divine spark that is in every single individual no matter what they are loving or listening to," he said.

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