More than 30 concerts in three cities. Scores of composers. And hundreds of years of repertoire to choose from. After 37 years, the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, its 24 professional vocalists from around the country, and its energetic leader have learned how to bring it all together.
“Programming for the Desert Chorale is one of the joys of my life,” said Joshua Habermann, artistic director since 2009 and director of the Dallas Symphony Chorus since 2015. “I don’t have a lot of limits, and I love that.”
In addition to the spring and summer festivals, the chorale offers community programs (such as the choral workshop Santa Fe Sings! May 18, and Hearts in Harmony, a weekly choral sing), as well as late-night jazz at El Mesón (beginning July 25 with soprano Chelsea Helm), Friday afternoon vocal chamber programs ( July 19 and Aug. 9), and a series of six free lectures, art exhibits, and panel discussions called Insights and Sounds.
“We’re non-specialists,” Habermann said. “We have got to be versatile. And we have to be advocates for the beauty and variety of the art form.”
The spring-summer season kicks off in Santa Fe on Saturday, April 27, with Illuminating the Dome: A Cappella Choral Music from the Eastern Orthodox Tradition. The first of five programs built around the notion of light, it is also performed at Albuquerque’s Cathedral of St. John on Saturday, April 28, and in Dallas on Tuesday, April 30. The repertoire includes three sections from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (Op. 37), a staple for the chorale, and a 2015 chorale commission, Aflame, by Ivan Moody (he and the late English composer John Tavener are included in the program as “British Mystics”). The program is rounded out by composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Vigilia. In the latter work, the 20th-century Finnish composer masterfully fuses styles, Habermann said. “He’s able to marry the modern voice with old Byzantine chants, creating a primal sound. There’s a big, wonderful sweeping glissando that takes the singers sliding up a full octave. It’s very exciting.”
In the program’s finale, Habermann conducts some 19th-century folk-flavored pieces by Tchaikovsky. In several works by little-known Russian choral composers, the chorale spotlights one of the marvels of traditional Russian Orthodox choral music: the rumbling sound of incredibly low notes given to the bassos. Reaching that deep is easily achieved, said Habermann, laughing. “It just takes red wine and cigars.”
The chorale’s Summer Festival runs July 20 and 26, and Aug. 4 and 8, taking audiences to Louis XIV’s Versailles with In the Court of the Sun King: Shining a Light on the French Baroque. Or, as the conductor describes it, “French powdered-wig music.” Pieces by Couperin and Rameau, well-known composers who worked for Louis and his successor, are included. Marc-Antoine Charpentier, perhaps not as familiar, is well-represented by what Habermann described as “heart-wrenching music.” Though he never worked at Versailles, Charpentier was a busy composer, penning works for anyone who’d pay him, including the king’s son and cousin. An unexpected entry in this French-flavored program is an excerpt from the oratorio Jephte by Italian Baroque composer Giacomo Carissimi, who reportedly discovered Charpentier while the young Frenchman was studying in Rome.
The program also includes a special treat for chorale audiences, Habermann promised. “We’ll end with a piece by Rameau [Ô Nuit], where we use a Baroque organ and have the singers surround our audience.”
On July 28 and Aug. 1 and 7, the summer festival continues with a salute to the Walt Whitman bicentenary, featuring three choral settings of his poetry. Titled “The long-enduring pensive moons” (a line from Whitman’s “On the Beach at Night”), the concert also presents music utilizing verses by Emily Dickinson, e.e. cummings, and Langston Hughes, all of whom Habermann called Whitman’s descendants. America’s beloved poet will be represented in an opening set that ends with the premiere of a commissioned work by Paul John Rudoi, a tenor with the chorale and a nationally respected choral composer. The words for The Wind’s True Song are by the late Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcón. Habermann pointed out that the work’s impetus comes from Leaves of Grass.
The final summer program is Luminosity: The Nature of Celestial Light, a reference to the region’s unusual sky. “It’s just a different feeling here,” the conductor observed. “You could look at our summer offerings and see that there’s a theme of light around the whole season.” The program, presented Aug. 3, 6, and 9, takes its title from the opening work by the fifty-five-year-old British composer James Whitbourn. Luminosity is a 25-minute piece from 2007 calling for a double chorus, organ, viola, tanpura (an Indian drone string instrument), and tamtam. Described by the conductor as “sacred in an ecumenical way,” its texts are derived from sources such as John the Apostle and Ryonen, a Zen Buddhist nun.
Following a Bach motet and Mendelssohn’s Ave Maria, the concerts conclude with a work by another contemporary English composer, Joby Talbot. Santiago, which focuses on the famed pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, is an excerpt from his hourlong Path of Miracles. “I’d love to do the complete work some day,” Habermann said.
All told, that’s a lot of music. “I send them marked scores in advance, so they come in prepared,” the conductor said, aware that most members live far from Santa Fe. “People often ask me when each concert’s rehearsals begin. They’re amazed when I tell them, ‘Tuesday.’ But these are superior singers, some of whom have been with us 15 to 20 years. For them, the festival is like a summer choral camp — but a very good one.”
Mindful of Santa Fe’s abundant summertime cultural attractions, Habermann said he loves the competition. In fact, he observed, many concertgoers head to a chorale concert right after attending an early evening offering by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. “We know that, once they walk in the door, they’re hooked,” he said. “A common reaction from newcomers is, ‘This is the best music I didn’t know I wanted to hear.’ ” ◀