Desert Chorale's "Roaring '20s" program lacked teeth

Frank Martin, left, Ethel Merman, Francis Poulenc, and Lili Boulanger

Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, July 23

On paper, the Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s Roaring ‘20s program looked terrific — a vocal exploration of the relationship between French art music of the time and the work of great Broadway tunesmiths coming to the fore simultaneously, such as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, and Cole Porter.

In practice, it proved disappointing. The chorale sang at its usual high level, but few trans-Atlantic connections were apparent between the French selections and the American, and none was elucidated by its music director, Joshua Habermann, who usually excels in making brief, informative comments about the repertory. As a result, it had less internal coherence than most Desert Chorale programs and fewer musical rewards, at least in the Broadway segment.

Lili Boulanger’s “Hymn to the Sun” opened the program. Its text (“Let us bless the power of the resurgent sun”) and celebratory tone made it an appealing post-pandemic choice, but its music reflects the grand European choral tradition of the 19th century, not the jazz age. The other European works performed reached back even farther for their inspiration, to Renaissance and Baroque models.

“Half monk and half rascal” was a memorable and at least partially accurate description of Francis Poulenc and his music, which could be deeply religious at times and wildly comic at others. Much of his vocal music echoed elements of the music hall, and some was influenced by jazz. His Seven Chansons dates from 1936 and pays tribute to the Renaissance song tradition, especially the music of Clément Janequin; three of the seven were performed here.

The aspect that most evoked the ‘20s was in Poulenc’s choice of texts, the often-surreal poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire (who coined the term surrealism) and Paul Éluard. (From a chanson called “Marie:” “Do I know where your hair will go/Frizzy like an ovine sea?”) The chorale’s performance of “Marie” was spirited, and several individual singers offered lovely little solos in “Lurie,” but the sopranos were taxed by its high tessitura (the vocal line) on some entrances.

Frank Martin was a Swiss composer whose work reflects his Calvinist upbringing and his love for the music of Bach, as if it were refracted through the harmonic palettes of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. His Mass for Double Choir is one of the greatest choral works of the 20th century, and one of the more challenging to sing. The chorale performed three of its five movements. They were the most impressively sung and musically satisfying section of the program. Habermann and his singers made a convincing case for performing the entirety in a future season.

H.L. Mencken once opined that opera in English made about as much sense as baseball in Italian. To my taste, a classical music chorus tackling Broadway material has about the same validity as Patti LuPone having a whack at Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Few in the audience for Roaring ‘20s seemed to share my point of view, judging by their enthusiastic response, but the results were mostly lackluster, suggesting that the chorale and Broadway are fellows that shouldn’t get in bed together.

Three of the show tunes were performed purely as chorus numbers, and two of them suffered from intrusive, sappy vocal arrangements. The one exception was the Rodgers and Hart standard “My Romance,” which comes from a 1936 extravaganza called Jumbo. The arranger of the chorale’s version was content to let the original material come to the forefront, with great effect.

“Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” was at the opposite end of the spectrum. This Cole Porter song (from a now-forgotten 1944 review called Seven Lively Arts) can be emotionally devastating when sung with conviction and a sense of drama. Here, it was merely wistful and weepy.

Five Broadway numbers were designed to showcase chorus members as soloists. The most successful were soprano Chelsea Helm, who provided enjoyable crooning and scat-singing in Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” and mezzo-soprano Sarah Nickerson, who channeled her inner Ethel Merman for some effective belting with a real story-telling sensibility in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” closing the program on a high-energy note.

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