The Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s third major program of the summer, “Luminosity: The Nature of Celestial Light,” was well executed from start to finish, with three of the four pieces providing real musical satisfaction, and the fourth not lacking in interest.
Mainstream works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn were bookended by music from two contemporary British composers. Both of the latter pieces are examples of “mystical minimalism,” in which the insistently repeated melodies, rhythms, and harmonic structures the style are filtered through the lens of medieval music, especially Gregorian chant. (The best-known practitioners are the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki, a Polish composer whose 1992 recording, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, has sold more than a million copies).
James Whitbourn’s Luminosity opened the program. Whitbourn is a crowd-pleasing composer whose background includes producing choral programs for the BBC, live broadcast recordings, and live broadcasts for London’s Royal Opera House, as well as composition, primarily in works for chorus. The seven texts for Luminosity were written by early Christian mystics, including Teresa of Ávila and Augustine of Hippo, along with a 19th-century Buddhist nun. They are intended to describe “the transcendent beauty of creation expressed by luminaries down the ages,” the composer said.
The musical palette here includes “pancultural” aspects drawn from the Carnatic tradition of southern India, including a tanpura — a stringed instrument that produces a sonic drone — and a viola played in a style that reflects the same tradition. (To Western ears, the viola playing often sounds like Romani music, which also has its roots in India.) Western instruments are present in the parts for organ and tam-tam, a big gong which uniquely increases in volume for a time after it’s struck.
Whitbourn is fond of veering away from minimalism toward movie music at times, with romantically harmonized vocal lines and some really big musical climaxes, courtesy, in part, of the tam-tam. The piece was convincingly sung, under Joshua Habermann’s direction, and the sound palette was often intriguing. However, at 30 minutes — and often with too close a sonic relationship to vapid “New Age” music — it overstays its welcome. Luminosity was conceived to include dance throughout, which at its Philadelphia premiere was performed by an international “black light mask and dance theater company.” It’s easy to see the piece functioning more successfully in this fashion than as a stand-alone concert item.
A nearly 20-minute movement from Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles was much more successful. Talbot’s background includes two narrative ballets, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale, for the Royal Ballet, and Everest, an opera that was premiered by the Dallas Opera in 2015.
He clearly has a facility for storytelling through music, which was amply demonstrated here.
Working with voices only, Talbot manipulated his musical material with variety and ingenuity, producing a score that seemed totally in harmony with itself from start to finish.
Path of Miracles traces four pilgrimage routes to the shrine of the apostle St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain. Pilgrims undertook the arduous journey to receive a plenary indulgence, an unconditional reduction in the amount of suffering they would undergo for their sins. “Santiago,” which was performed by chorale, is the work’s fourth section, describing the route taken by Spanish pilgrims.
It begins with a solo line over open harmonies, with additional lines soon layered onto it. Their repetitions generated an incantatory quality suggesting the nature of a long journey, and then continues with a few stinging dissonances as they climb to the end of their journey.
The cathedral’s acoustics were put to especially good use as the pilgrims arrive at the Cathedral, their multilingual thanks rising to a magnificent cacophony.
A lively celebration of spring and exultant holy thanks are followed by a more contemplative prayer, sung to block harmonies. In a stunning coup de théâtre, the performers snapped their music shut, then recessed through the now-darkened nave of the cathedral, journeying into the distance physically and vocally. It made for an emotionally compelling conclusion to a very satisfying piece of new music.
Bach’s motet The Spirit Helps Us in Our Weakness (Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf ) for two four-part choruses was written for the funeral of a Leipzig University professor. However, the text, which was chosen by the decedent, is celebratory, as is Bach’s musical setting. The chorale’s performance was appropriately jubilant. In the opening movement, the choruses toss a dance-like figure in triple meter back and forth, then continue with an eight-part fugue, during which there was some unusually shaky intonation from the group.
The second movement (“But he who searches our hearts knows”) is also fugue-like, but in a more old-fashioned style. The unavoidable by-product of performing music during which various lines of text overlap in a highly resonant space is that words become difficult to follow, as they did here and in the first movement. With its mostly unison text, the third and final movement (“You holy fire, sweet consolation”) showed the chorale at its finest, with a beautifully blended sound throughout, as did Mendelssohn’s much-loved “Ave Maria.”
▼ “Luminosity: The Nature of Celestial Light”
▼ 8 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 9
▼ Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, 131 Cathedral Place
▼ Tickets are $20-$95; 505-988-2282, desertchorale.org