By John W. Lambert
SANTA FE, N.M. – Summer festivals in Santa Fe are underway, and with a vengeance. There’s opera and chamber music and choral music all over, not to mention the city’s customary year-round surfeit of visual art, its many museums, and its well-deserved reputation as one of America’s foremost foodie meccas. It was a logical destination for the Music Critics Association of North America’s annual meeting, held July 19-22. The warm welcome members received at every turn was totally in keeping with the sun, the blue skies — and the low humidity!
There was – is – so much going on that tough choices were required of the U.S. and Canadian critics in attendance, not to mention music lovers who come to Santa Fe from (literally) all over. Thus right off the bat, on the first night of the conference, there were options: as Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel played at the opera seven miles north of the city, the Santa Fe Desert Chorale* offered a splendid a cappella early-music concert in a chapel less than a mile from Museum Hill.
The venue was the strikingly beautiful Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel, a small (128 seats as arranged for this concert) and resonant sanctuary that proved particularly flattering to the nine singers who offered “Music from a Secret Chapel.” The program ranged from Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) to Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), with brief secular respites and a nod to northern composers along the way.
The Chorale itself, marking its 35th anniversary this season, and one of our nation’s artistic treasures, is far from your typical chorus in that its 25 members hail from near and far – only two are based in Santa Fe – and assemble twice a year for action-packed summer and December seasons. This year’s activity encompasses four programs in five venues (including run-outs to Albuquerque) plus a summer gala with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham (in a sixth location). All told, the Chorale and subsets thereof are being heard 14 times in July and August, as well as twice more in the winter season. There are also screenings of two films under the Desert Chorale’s banner. And all these things of course complement offerings here by Santa Fe Opera and Santa Fe Chamber Music. No wonder many folks come for weeks at a time.
The artists who performed in the Chorale’s first program all have distinguished resumes – bios and photos are in the handsome program book, along with texts, translations, notes, and more. Conductor Joshua Habermann, for nine years the Chorale’s music director and leader, is based in Texas, where he heads the Dallas Symphony Chorus. His artistic and academic experience is deep and wide.
The program offered many short pieces, as is typical of early-music concerts everywhere. The complete listing is here. From the very first chords of Hildegard’s “Caritas Abundat” (Love Abounds), listeners sensed the presence of a superior and deeply committed vocal ensemble, graced by masterful diction, blend, phrasing, and projection – the last particularly enhanced by the chapel’s architecture. The room is resonant but not overly reverberant, so one hears the music clearly and only once, as opposed to the wash-over effect encountered in some larger churches. Josquin’s “Ave Maria” followed, exquisitely realized, deepening the mood of serenity and peace that would persist throughout, with few exceptions.
The program included groups of works from England – a chant from Henry V’s era and three pieces by Byrd; music by Victoria and Palestrina; two marvelous examples by Sweelinck and Praetorius, from Northern Europe; and the grand finale: Allegri ‘s “Misere mei, Deus” (delivered with part of the chorus in the loft at the rear of the chapel). In between came three charming pieces by Luca Marenzio (1553-99) sung by groups of three women, formed from the five female singers. These lightened the otherwise serious and somber mood of the concert as the music was decidedly secular, with one of the pieces – “A la strada” – representing music that would surely have been banned from churches.
Byrd’s “Why Do I Use?” was the evening’s sole composition with English words; it featured the only solo artist, the splendid mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland, in her debut season with the Chorale. Other highlights included the women singing over the men’s drone-like foundation in the Hildegard, Byrd’s “Ave verum corpus,” the comparably well-known Sistine Chapel numbers (most especially Victoria’s “Pueri Hebraeorum” and Palestrina’s “Super Flumina Babylonis”), fascinating and complex Dutch and German pieces, and the quite overwhelming Allegri finale, given with the chapel lights out, the only illumination coming from candles at the front and the small lights used by the singers for their scores.
As noted, the performances were, overall, at high levels of artistry and technique, skillfully blended. On very few occasions, in high registers at high volume (from both the women and the men), a hint of stridency surfaced. But in sum, the journey back in time left this listener in awe of the Desert Chorale’s mastery.
The Desert Chorale’s summer season extends through Aug. 21. For complete details, visit the ensemble’s website.
* The chief executives of Santa Fe’s largest presenters – the Desert Chorale, Santa Fe Opera, Santa Fe Chamber Music, and Performance Santa Fe – participated in an outstanding panel on the state of the arts as part of the MCANA’s annual meeting. Performance Santa Fe is a year-round enterprise that launches its next season on July 30.
John W. Lambert is the former executive editor of Classical Voice North Carolina.