The Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s “In the Court of the Sun King” offered a cross section of sacred music by French Baroque-era composers, including the stellar figures Marc-Antoine Charpentier, François Couperin, and Jean-Philippe Rameau.
During the concert on July 26, though, the full impact of their superb compositions was at times compromised by the Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel’s reverberant acoustics and a hit-and-miss programming choice.
The concert featured a 12-member subset of the chorale’s 25-person roster. To judge from this group of performers, the chorale under artistic director Joshua Habermann sings at a high level of quality overall, with the altos and the basses being the most solid, consistent sections.
The full consort was especially impressive on slow-moving texts sung to sustained chords, such as the deeply sorrowful “Weep, Children of Israel” (“Plorate filii Israel”), the final section of Giacomo Carissimi’s oratorio Jephte. “Hymn to the Night” (“Hymne à la nuit”), adapted from Rameau’s first opera, was similarly effective in evoking the “calm enchantment” enveloping the Earth, especially with singers surrounding the seating area. Both pieces were beautifully shaped by Habermann and were sung with a well-blended, rich sonority.
A new musical form, the oratorio, in which a sacred story was told in a fast-moving, dramatic way, came to the forefront during the 17th century. Unlike the earlier masses and motets, with their short and often well-known texts, those for the oratorio were longer and more specific.
The third work performed, for instance, Charpentier’s oratorio The Denial of St. Peter (Le reniement de Saint Pierre), is an excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew. It includes extensive dialogue between Peter and Jesus describing Peter’s betrayal of Jesus on the Mount of Olives, as well as prolonged narrative descriptions of the event. The texts for it and several other offerings, including Charpentier’s glorious Litanies of the Virgin (Litanies de la vierge), were very difficult to follow in this program, between the overly live acoustics and some blurry diction, especially by the sopranos. The general sonic contour remained attractive in a sort of all-purpose way, but there was a considerable loss, since the word-setting and musical imagery conjured up by these Baroque composers is so impressive.
In a spoken introduction, Habermann explained that some selections were chosen to highlight individual chorale members, all of whom had “the ability to excel as solo singers.” It’s an attractive idea, as it allows for a greater variety of repertory and no doubt helps attract singers to the group. As implemented, it had variable results, ranging from vocalists who were excellent (especially a bass with a rich sound and superb diction) to quite good to just acceptable.
The least successful such performance was that by the group’s three sopranos, who shared vocal duties in François Couperin’s Lessons of Darkness (Leçons de ténèbres). Written for the singing nuns in a Parisian abbey, it’s a beguiling piece, written for two high voices that often intertwine languorously. Here it suffered from some flat pitches, indistinct words, and colorless, “white” vocal tones that turned harsh under pressure.
Cellist Katie Rietman and organist David Solem offered solid, appropriately unobtrusive support throughout. They were joined by very capable violinists Jeffrey Smith and Lorenzo Colitto for two of the selections.
Some thoughtful small touches deserve mention, such as the pre-performance cough drops and water bottle placed on each seat, and the post-performance thanks that were graciously offered by the performers to patrons as they exited the chapel.
▼ “In the Court of the Sun King”
▼ 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 4 (pre-concert talk 2:30 p.m.); 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8 (pre-concert talk 6:30 p.m.)
▼ Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel, 50 Mount Carmel Road
▼ Tickets are $20-$95; 505-988–2282, desertchorale.org