Desert Chorale premieres a mantra for its singers

Composer Reena Esmail, photo Hannah Arista

The Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s third program this season, East Meets West, is an exploration of Asian and Asian-American music (some on sacred texts, some on secular) that ranges from traditional folk music to the world premiere of a commissioned work, “The Tipping Point.” It’s by Reena Esmail, a young Indian-American composer who has been a composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony and a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow.

“This piece pivoted so many times as I was writing it, just like we all pivoted during the pandemic,” Esmail said in a video interview. “I finally settled on the idea of the return of light. I was writing it this spring and it was just as we were starting to see that things would open up again.” It ends with the phrase “Light always returns, and returns, and returns,” because she wanted to create a mantra for the Desert Chorale singers who return to Santa Fe every summer from all over the country.

Over the past few decades, choral music in Asia has grown enormously in popularity and participation, with ensembles from South Korea and the Philippines in particular participating in many international competitions. There’s been a corresponding growth in the number of composers, many of them women, creating new choral music and new arrangements of traditional songs.

East Meets West opens with the “Cum sancto spiritu” section of the Gloria by Hyo-Won Woo. Many of her compositions are settings of Western religious texts that combine Korean musical traditions with contemporary art music techniques. Her countrywoman Byunghee Oh, composer-in-residence with the National Chorus of Korea, is represented by two pieces, “Mother, Sister, Let’s Live by the Riverside” and “Ching, Ching, the Joyful Sound.”

The Philippines have a different choral tradition than most Asian countries, due to its occupation by Spain. The chorale’s program ends with works reflecting the Spanish colonial period, “There is Life Because of You” and “Here is Rosas Pandan,” the latter featuring a dazzling soprano solo. They are sung in Tagalog and Cebuano, respectively. These two Philippine languages are among the eight to be sung by the chorale in the program, the others being English, Latin, Japanese, Mandarin, Hindi, and Korean.

East Meets West performances are at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, July 30, 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 1, 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 3, and 4 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 6 at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, 131 Cathedral Place. Tickets are $30-$100 from 505-988–2282 or No tickets at the door. 

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