Another Feather in Santa Fe’s Cap

August 19, 2009 | By Sarah Bryan Miller
SANTA FE, N.M. – In addition to the Santa Fe Opera and Chamber Music Festival, this arts-filled community also boasts the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, which just completed its 27th summer season (it also has a brief one in December). The 22 singers in the 2009 Chorale have come here from jobs and academic programs all over the country.

It’s a youngish group, largely made up of grad students, trying-to-get-established professional singers and a few teachers. A collection of definitely soloistic voices, it performs in assorted venues, clad in black, and offers an impressive variety of repertoire. This year, under new music director Joshua Habermann, its works ranged from the traditional to the Baroque, from the Renaissance to the 21st century.

Performances heard on Aug. 2 and Aug. 7 were mixed. Like a festival orchestra, with talented musicians put together with too short a rehearsal period, the Chorale sometimes is less than the sum of its parts. At the first concert, the venue was a part of the problem. The Scottish Rite Temple, on the northwest end of downtown Santa Fe, is a rose-hued Moorish fantasy with exotic but heavily draperied and padded décor; its auditorium is, if not quite acoustically dead, at least comatose, and the sound was consistently muddy.

Repertoire was another issue, as was the unnecessarily confusing program. (Surely it wouldn’t cost any more to put the name of the composer by the text for each work, particularly since pieces sometimes get moved around after the program is printed.) “Handel and the Italians” featured a small orchestra accompanying a series of solos, trios and two-soprano duets; that wasn’t quite the choral richesse for which one might have hoped.

When the full chorus did sing, the blend was inconsistent, no doubt due in large part to the acoustic. On the other hand, some of those soloists were extremely good, with one entirely redeeming duet near the concert’s end. Everyone in the Chorale appears to have been selected with great vocal flexibility and facility in mind.

The violins had consistent tuning issues. Chicago-based harpsichordist David Schrader -- a last-minute sub for General Director Don Scott Carpenter, who had had an emergency appendectomy a day or two before –- played with his customary superb form.

The Aug. 7 concert -– largely altered from what was in the printed program –- was titled the “Summer Finale Concert.” Performed in the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, it offered several big sings, some pieces that were reprises from earlier concerts in the season and a star soloist in mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. The Cathedral Basilica was a better acoustic in every way, despite imperfect sightlines in some parts of the nave, and the sell-out crowd dampened any potential echo.

The performance began with the singers in the side aisles, singing “Bi Iose im Chroiste,” a traditional Irish chant. Once situated on their boxes, they went straight into Antonio Lotti’s “Crucifixus.” The latter, also heard on Aug. 2, exhibited some of the problems with the Chorale’s approach. The notes were all there and sung accurately. But any feeling for the meaning of the words and what they represent was largely lacking; a good church choir may sing a piece like this one better than the Chorale, just because its members think about the text and the context. James MacMillan’s “Christus Vincet” featured gorgeous solos by soprano Melanie Russell.

The first half ended with a brilliant, ambitious pairing of two very different works: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s “Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae” (with words from, believe it or not, a Latin-language radio news broadcast about the sinking of the luxury ferry Estonia in the Baltic in 1994) and William Byrd’s “Justorum Animae.” Both were beautifully done, in wonderful stylistic contrast, making a huge impact for a breathtaking, guaranteed-to-bring-them-back-after-intermission conclusion.

There was some vocal fatigue – and, therefore, some sagging pitches – on display in the second half. The first number was Randall Thompson’s “Have Ye Not Known, Ye Shall Have a Song” (how nice to hear something by him other than the everlasting “Alleluia”), followed by Alan Murray’s setting of Shakespeare’s “O Mistress Mine.” Next, in this very eclectic mix, came John Tavener’s “Song for Athene.” It was beautifully done, although Habermann, in his introduction, failed to warn the audience that the big noisy bit wasn’t the conclusion. He also neglected to keep his hands high enough that the people in the back of the venue could see there was more to come. A huge premature ovation destroyed the ending, although Habermann and his basses vamped until the applause died out and the rest of the chorus could come back in.

It seemed to rattle the performers, who still had a major work to go. Aaron Copland’s “In the Beginning” is a tour de force for a soprano soloist and accomplished chorus, and Susan Graham was in excellent voice, as well as providing a star presence to the proceedings. The Copland, and the encore, “Shenandoah,” brought a memorable end to an unusual and ambitious season.



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