The Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s second summer offering has an unwieldy title — “The long-enduring pensive moons: A Bicentenary Celebration of Walt Whitman and Other Esteemed American Poets” — but the program, as given on Sunday, July 28, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, yielded some impressive results.
The relationship between Whitman and music can’t be overestimated. There are now more than 1,000 songs and other compositions that make use of his work in some way, and his popularity with composers continues to increase. Whitman was a music critic for nearly two decades, and musical imagery courses throughout his poetry. It’s especially prominent in his great collection Leaves of Grass, which teems with the names of composers and performers, and with musical vocabulary. The word song appears in it more than 150 times.
The chorale’s 75-minute program offered music from nine still-living composers, much of it in a neo-Romantic style. It also ranged more widely than the title implied, including music and texts by four Britons, composers Jonathan Dove and Tarik O’Regan and poets William Blake and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
The chorale was featured at full strength — 24 members — and took advantage of the Basilica’s acoustics, singing with an impressive range of volume, from full-throated fortissimo to whispered pianissimo, while maintaining mostly clear diction. Their blend was also good, apart from a few of the loudest moments when individual voices stood out. The high quality of their intonation was evident in several works that included challenging tone clusters. Attacks and cutoffs were precise throughout, and the several short solos were well within the abilities of the chosen singers.
Three songs with texts drawn from Leaves of Grass opened the program. Barlow Bradford’s “Keep Your Splendid, Silent Sun” and “My Spirit Is Uncaged” by Paul Rardin reflected Whitman’s energetic and extroverted side, the “barbaric yawp” he sounded over the rooftops of the world. The first successfully conveyed the gritty and cacophonous joys of 19th-century Manhattan, while the second invoked the poet’s celebration of human physicality, most famously conveyed by his phrase “I sing the body electric.” The latter song also offered a challenge that was successfully met by the chorale – singing very quietly but with high energy and good diction. Both pieces were nicely paced and well-structured by conductor Joshua Habermann, as was Timothy C. Takach’s ethereal “Something There Is Immortal.”
They were followed by a Desert Chorale commission by the young composer Paul John Rudoi, who is also a tenor in the group. He chose “The Wind’s True Song” by Chicano poet Francisco Alarcón for the text, then intercut it with a few lines from Whitman. In his spoken comments, Habermann opined that it describes “the best part of our shared humanity.” The new work was sweetly optimistic, a bit too long, and missed out on the anger underlying the poem’s last section.
Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year offered the strongest artistic impression, followed closely by Eric Whitacre’s Three Songs of Faith. The Dove is a song cycle on the themes of death and renewal, with bell-like harmonics prominent in the Tennyson finale, “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” Whitaker looks at faith through the unique prism of American iconoclast (and shift-key challenged) e. e. cummings. The poet’s second Song of Faith consists of just eight words — hope, faith, life, love, dream, joy, truth, soul — which were repeated in Whitaker’s setting over slow-moving harmonies spun out by the addition and subtraction of voices, creating an engaging emotional effect through the simplest of means.
The two songs by William Averitt were set to poems by Langston Hughes. “Song for Billie Holiday” seemed to have a light dusting of mild musical ethnicity, rather than a gut-level connection to the material. (The composer is not African American.) The second, drawn from Averitt’s The Dream Keeper and simply titled “Song,” fared much better, with its insistent Latin rhythms capturing the poem’s restlessness and resentment. — Mark Tiarks
▼ “The long-enduring pensive moons: A Bicentenary Celebration of Walt Whitman and Other Esteemed American Poets”
▼ 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 7
▼ Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, 131 Cathedral Place
▼ Tickets are $20-$95; 505-988-2282, desertchorale.org