The Santa Fe Desert Chorale opened its 2022 season with two programs — Pilgrimage, a survey of music from lands around the Mediterranean Sea, and Mystics & Mavericks, choral works “celebrating female sages and innovators, ancient and modern,” as the group described it. The concerts combined the chorale’s well-known virtues — thematically organized repertory and high performance quality — with one major revelation.
In an interview earlier this year, music director Joshua Habermann talked about his interest in furthering “cross-cultural conversations and interfaith dialogues,” and Pilgrimage opened with a musical example. Prayers from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism were sung separately at first, and then simultaneously, in Habermann’s harmonious arrangement.
Music from three traditions followed, starting with the Sephardim, a Jewish people centered in Spain until King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ordered their conversion, expulsion, or execution in 1492. (Some made their way to Nuevo Mexico and have descendants here today.)
It and the following section, featuring Spanish composers, shared many features, including melodies reflecting Gregorian chant, block harmonies or drones in the lower voices, and descending vocal lines. In the Sephardic section, “Yo M’Enamori d’un Aire” was noteworthy for the chorale’s lovely, plaintive vocalism. Bass-baritone Enrico Lagasca, best of the program’s several soloists, was impressive in “Una Sañosa Porfía,” which, although composed by Spaniard Juan del Encina, was a lament for Spain’s last Muslim king and his expulsion from Granada.
Songs from the Levantine region followed, sung in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic. Two devout and austere numbers were succeeded by “Wa Habibi,” a Maronite hymn with a quasi-improvised solo vocal line making use of bent pitches, effectively performed by soprano Alissa Ruth Suver.
The music in the first three sections had as much in common with each other as it had differences. Not so with the last part, three songs from Morocco’s Amazigh tradition. It’s folk music from the High Atlas Mountains with three main ingredients — percussion instruments, including the cajon (the box-like item often used in flamenco), stringed instruments (including a six-string banjo and a one-string fiddle), and a solo vocal style emphasizing free ornamentation.
Guest artist Fattah Abbou sang and played the stringed instruments, in addition to introducing the songs. He’s a charismatic performer and these songs, in a call-and-response format with the chorale, were an energetic and charming finale.
Pilgrimage took place at Cristo Rey Catholic Church and the revelation was that it is a superior performance venue for choral music. The acoustics offer a warmer timbre and shorter reverberation time than those at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, the group’s standard venue, which means the sound is less austere and much more of the text can be understood. I hope it will be given serious consideration for future concerts.
Mystics & Mavericks was performed at the cathedral and was more variable in repertory quality. The opening two selections — religious pieces composed by Hildegard von Bingen and Kassia during the medieval era — may have fared best, since they were written for churches of the same design as our cathedral. (It’s Romanesque Revival, inspired by churches from circa 1100 with unadorned stone walls and narrow windows which cause long reverberation times.)
A set of four Scandinavian songs revealed some fascinating similarities with music from Pilgrimage, including bass drones and block harmonies, as well as an austere mysticism at times. Soprano Kathleen Ritch was a fine soloist in a Finnish song, “Kylä Vuotti Uutta Kuuta,” thanks to her direct, unfussy approach, and the chorale coped very well with some gnarly harmonies in the same piece.
The featured work was “Caminante,” commissioned by the chorale from Minnesota-based composer Jocelyn Hagen. It was based on the same basic concept as the opening for the Pilgrimage concert — music from disparate communities coming together harmoniously — but her overlaying of Spanish- and English-language poems about travel wasn’t as musically interesting as Habermann’s “Chants of Faith” arrangement from the earlier program.
Good for the chorale for choosing four songs by part-time New Mexico resident Meredith Monk, the “Magician of the Voice,” who was awarded a National Medal of the Arts in 2014. Her wordless but not textless music has broken many boundaries and was especially enjoyable here in “Astronaut Anthem,” which begins with medieval drones and ends with a vocal impression of a rocket launch by the sopranos.
The final section, four pieces by contemporary composer Moira Smiley, was less satisfying. The first, “Dance/S’loyfn, S’yogn,” went on too long to sustain interest and “Silverlake” was reminiscent of earlier pieces on the program.
The most memorable, unfortunately, was the finale, “Sing About It.” It was written as a response to gun violence, and Smiley describes it as “a soulful, rhythmic call to learn to listen, and how to stand up for each other.” Its combination of R&B-esque music, the use of body percussion (part of the African American musical heritage), and dropped g’s at the ends of lines, when sung by an almost all-white choir, gave it an uncomfortably patronizing quality.