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July 18, 2005

Critical Ear: The skilled breath of passion

Santa Fe New Mexican (NM):

Of all the performing arts, choral music is probably the one most taken for granted. We tend to accept that we can't all move like a ballet dancer, play bassoon like an orchestra pro, take on identities like a great actor, or even sing like an opera star. But making vaguely musical noises in a group? Everybody has a voice, so surely anybody can do that.

Well, not quite. Not when it comes to the Santa Fe Desert Chorale. The professional ensemble, which opened its 23rd summer season last week, is to the average church, college, or community choir what a winning Olympic relay team is to some kids trotting around the block: out of sight. The 20 members of the group, and music director Linda Mack, are masters of their craft — people who make their living with their voices and their musical skills, and for whom work is a pleasure, not just a necessity.

This year's cadre, which includes 18 veterans and just two first-time singers, brings together university professors; high school music teachers; operatic, concert, and jazz soloists; teachers of conducting and music theory; and a former member of the Air Force's vocal ensemble, the Singing Sergeants. Among them, they have experience in literally hundreds of choral groups; eight of the singers have master's degrees in music or are getting them, and five have doctorates in music. And by the end of the season on Aug. 19, they and Mack will have put in more than 2,500 collective hours of rehearsal, refined into five repertoires. Performances began three weeks ago with a preseason tour of historic churches in northern New Mexico, in a repertoire titled Una Celebración de Música Hispánica. Another repertoire, Great Cathedral Music, opened this past week and is in regular performance.

"It's going really well," Mack said of the season. "I'm amazed — we've had huge audiences at the church locations, and the people in the churches are delighted we've come to perform for them. The other night, they clapped between every movement of the Misa Criolla [by Ariel Ramírez] — and with great enthusiasm. "One gentleman said to me afterward, 'I've never heard a liturgical Mass sung when people clapped after the Gloria!' It's really been fun for the singers to explore the history of the churches."

As its name suggests, Great Cathedral Music deals with sacred music, most of it written for grand spaces. The Breath of Passion includes some religious music, too, but also a hefty dose of secular pieces. "The history of choral music, of course, is rooted in the church, so proportionally there is a slightly larger amount of sacred music on this concert than secular — but of different kinds," Mack said of The Breath of Passion. "There are some quiet, reverent things, and there is some shout-to-the-rooftops music. Then, mostly on the second half, we extend to love of life, of relationships, of country; folk music."

The concert begins with medieval chants, including a setting from the Convent of Las Huelgas in Burgos, Spain, and a 12th-century Gregorian chant. A mix of modern and Renaissance works follows, including Leo Nestor's Jesu dulcis memoria, Cristóbal de Morales' Manus tuae, Domine, Thomas Tallis' I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say, and Henry Purcell's Lord, How Long Wilt Thou Be Angry?

Additional programming encompasses works by Darius Milhaud, Tchaikovsky, Nancy Telfer, Daniel Gawthrop, Jean Berger, and Eric Whitacre. Pieces by two Santa Fe composers are slated — Mary Lynn Place Badarak's The Avowal and "Erase una nińa" from the late Lanham Deal's Miniaturas de Sor Juana. György Ligeti's "Night" and "Morning," two vivid pieces of choral tone painting, were first performed by the chorale during its 1983 premiere season.

One of Mack's favorite choices for this concert is a set of two folk songs from Paul Ben-Haim's Six Sephardic Folksongs. "I looked up some old programs, and the chorale did a couple of those way back in the '80s," she said. "I wanted to do a set of folk pieces, and I definitely wanted to do something from the Sephardic Jewish tradition. I found these pieces and fell in love with all six of them. I picked two that really reflect the pain and sorrow of the national disembodiment, if you will, of the Sephardic people."

Asked how it was to work with this year's singers, Mack said: "They're wonderful. They're just great. They're experienced veterans. They know how to do this. They're working extremely well together. It's uplifting for me — their work ethic is so inspiring."

Posted by acapnews at July 18, 2005 9:38 PM