santa fe desert chorale

Oregon Repertory Singers & Santa Fe Desert Chorale: preserving musical moments

New recordings from esteemed choirs showcase American music, including Northwest composers


James DePreist, famed conductor of the Oregon Symphony from 1980-2003, once shared with me his thoughts on producing a recording. During his tenure, the orchestra produced 17 recordings, one of which, in 2003, garnered a Grammy nomination. He said it was definitely not to make money, but to preserve a moment in time in the history of the organization.

Two fine choral organizations – one local and volunteer, one operating from the Southwest United States and professional, have this past year each recorded a moment in their musical time. Let’s take a look at how the two recordings share a common goal – to celebrate our choral music journey in America.

Oregon Repertory Singers, founded 45 years ago, ably directed by Ethan Sperry in 2012 (succeeding Gil Seeley) has stood out among the numerous fine choral groups in Portland. Their CD Shadows on the Stars, released on the Gothic label, features Northwest American composers. Some are well known, such as Morten Lauridsen, Joan Szymko and John Muehleisen; some are rising stars like Giselle Wyers, Naomi LaViolette, and Stacey Philipps.

The Santa Fe Desert Chorale offers a broader spectrum, still hewing to the “Made in America” qualification. Artistic Director Joshua Habermann, currently director of the Dallas Symphony Chorus, is also in his tenth year with SFDC. In The Road Home, his programming delves more deeply into the American past, honoring the Shaker tradition by excerpting (Track 4) from the “American Vocalist” a collection of American voiced music, published in 1849, a valuable moment in American choral tradition in print form. Each CD provides a strong representation of the traditions and abilities of each choir.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Blue Ribbon Special

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

Summertime, and the feeling is scattered. The rhythm of the season is both relaxed and jagged, irregular, prone to long gaps and sudden leaps. Quick: a day in the mountains, a weekend at the beach, a backyard barbecue before the weather turns and the kids head back to school.

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 1.55.34 PMIn the past week or so I’ve spied a lovely giant wood-carved Bigfoot lurking by the side of the road on the way to Timberline Lodge, which whetted my appetite for funky folk art; and a swayback, smudged-white horse grazing idly beneath a giant Trump for President sign on a farm north of Ellensburg in central Washington, which whetted my appetite for oddball juxtapositions. Both are peculiarities that seem congruent with an August day.

Down in Salem the Oregon State Fair opens on Friday (“Here Comes the Fun!” the promos shout) and I doubt I’ll make it this year, but if I do I’m also pretty sure I’ll find some blissful oddities to contemplate. I note, for instance, that one of the ongoing features is something called Machine Mania, in which “Pistons Rule!” Plus, this year there’ll be a blue ribbon for marijuana crops. The mind boggles.



AUGUST ARTS EVENTS are often quick-and-dirty affairs, too, here and gone again almost before you can blink. A couple of short-term things coming up this week, plus a longer-running show to get on your calendar before it disappears:

"The Reimagining of French Gray by the Displaced Woman." Photo: Chain Reaction Theatre.

“The Reimagining of French Gray by the Displaced Woman.” Photo: Chain Reaction Theatre.

The Re-Imagining of French Gray by the Displaced Woman. The world premiere of Elizabeth Huffman’s reimagining of a 1967 Josef Bush play will run Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Milagro Theatre. A co-production of Huffman’s Chain Reaction Theatre and Cygnet Productions, it’s directed by Cygnet’s Louanne Moldovan and stars Huffman in the dual roles of a wealthy Austrian queen caught in the aftermath of the French Revolution in 1793 and a wealthy Syrian bon vivant caught in an Arab uprising in 2016.


Treasures from the Desert, part 2: Singing Shakespeare

Ideas for Portland from Santa Fe's renowned summer choral festival


“The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds…Let no such man be trusted.”

While the works of Thomas Morley and Robert Johnson are the only surviving settings from Shakespeare’s time, the playwright’s words have been set and sung throughout the ages since. Shakespeare was indeed “[held] in perfection but a little moment” for the Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s August 4 performance of “Sounds and Sweet Airs,” commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. It was outstanding.

Guest director Richard Sparks and 16 members of the Desert Chorale brought to bear their mutual authority, bringing out the subtle and elegant settings of some of the finest chorale settings of Shakespeare’s text. Outstanding among the selections were the Songs of Ariel by the Swiss composer Frank Martin and Three Shakespeare Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams (coincidentally, the same 20th century composers paired in Portland’s Oregon Repertory Singers’ concert this past spring).

Richard Sparks led the Desert Chorale in choral settings of Shakespeare's words. Photo: Chelsea Call.

Richard Sparks led the Desert Chorale in choral settings of Shakespeare’s words. Photo: Chelsea Call.

The Vaughan Williams was the best I’ve ever heard, live or otherwise. One of the gifts of the 20th century English composer’s a cappella choral music is its accessibility to singers and audience. Vaughan Williams’s technique balances a rich and varied harmonic [palette] with an intuitive sense of what is organic and grateful for the human voice and ear,” writes San Francisco Conservatory of Music professor and scholar David Conte of these pieces.

Richard Sparks reminded me that their creation was almost “not to be.” In 1951, Vaughn Williams was asked, along with other elite composers of his time, to compose a test piece for the British Federation of Music Festivals choral competition. Choirs would be rated on their rendering of the new compositions. Vaughan Williams was disinclined to compose for this pedagogical purpose and replied no further about it. There arrived, however, at the home of Armstrong Gibbs, competition director, a bound package with these Shakespeare settings and a note.

“Dear Armstrong. Here are three Shakespeare settings. Do what you like with them… Yours ever R.V.W.”

The Martin cycle of 1950 is considered among the best works the choral world has to offer, the sine qua non of Shakespeare settings in a choral cycle. Each movement is drawn from The Tempest, with its vibrant characters such as Caliban and Ariel, and here, Martin seized many opportunities for colorful musical representations. The choir held in check their shared vocal puissance, rather hinting at it so as to capitalize on other facets: variety of articulation, dynamic shadings and the biggest challenge of the cycle, persnickety vertical tuning. (This essential idea refers to each singer’s tuning his or her part to the ones above and below them, en passant.)

The fourth movement, “We are three men of Sin,” is one of the most striking. It demands a fine alto soloist, and there she was: Mitzi Westra, alto out of Indianapolis, possessor of an orotund vocal sound, was just the right choice for this signal solo. Just as handsome here were the rich supporting sounds of the tenors and basses.

Other movements, such as “Where the Bee sucks” and “Before you can say come and go,” are saturated with both verbal and matching musical onomatopoeia. In the former, the singers all use “mmm” on fast passages to become temporary “bees.” The latter has Shakespeare’s text zipping through our ears in a flash — and it’s over in a moment of fleeting joy.


Treasures from the Desert, part 1: American Voices

Renowned Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s concert of American music shows recipe for choral music excellence


Editor’s note: ArtsWatch writer and Oregon choral music master Bruce Browne traveled to New Mexico this month to experience one of the nation’s finest choral programs. Today’s report examines the Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s history and one of its major concerts. In Part 2, Browne reviews a concert of Shakespeare-related music, and offers some lessons for Oregon from his experience in Santa Fe. 

A snapshot of one day in the professional lives of the Santa Fe Desert Chorale: singing the pesante, lustrously dark repertoire of Rachmaninoff’s famous All Night Vigil in two back to back rehearsals during the day, then that evening, coping with the polar opposite in vocal delivery, the Songs of Ariel of Frank Martin, or Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Three Shakespeare Songs. This is like running a 10K, then, a few hours later, swimming a couple of 100 (meter butterflies). Neither Usain Bolt nor Michael Phelps do that.

The Santa Fe Desert Chorale is in season and, as they have for 34 years, they impressed their loyal namesake patrons and guests.

Titled “American Voices,” SFDC’s August 4 program was possibly the most imaginative and best integrated programming I’ve encountered in a handful of decades of directing and observing American choirs. Each piece highlighted a different American musical era and composer, ranging from icons like Charles Ives (1874-1954) and Randall Thompson (1899-1984), to mid-career masters like Frank Ferko, to a young phenom born two years after Thompson’s death, Jake Runestad. While eras and styles were well represented, the only shortcoming was that no female composers (such as (Libby Larsen, Cindy McTee or Portland’s Joan Szymko) were selected among the notable Americans.

The Santa Fe Desert Chorale displayed consistently true intonation, suave phrasing, with supremely plastic vocal line. Under conductor Joshua Habermann, they coaxed the music off the page on each occasion, just as when I heard them in March 2015 at the American Choral Directors Association Convention in Salt Lake City — a signal honor. Singers displayed clear commitment not only to text but, exquisitely, on a deeper level, to subtext and the author’s overall aura.

The basses offered depth without macho tripping; the tenors, a glassy smooth silvery line; the altos a warm, sometimes matriarchal and supple tone, never woofy. And the sopranos, well! Like the morning sun on the Sangre de Cristo mountains, they shone — without overheating, never top heavy, and always savvy with their highest notes.

This is what a professional choir should be about. They never sway in their delivery of a robust but elastic tone, and balance multi-part chords with the facility of 20 acrobats forming a pyramid.

Santa Fe Desert Chorale sang "American Voices" program. Photo: Chelsea Call.

Santa Fe Desert Chorale sang “American Voices” program. Photo: Chelsea Call.

The singers’ excellence was matched by the concert’s programming. In one of the pre-concert lectures, young composer Jake Runestad talked about his composing process. (Portland’s Byrd Festival and Chamber Music Northwest follow this tradition of “knowledge building” to enrich the musical experience; would that all festival programs would add this bennie to their offerings.) The 30-year-old Runestad is becoming a new household word among the choral cognoscenti in this country. He embraces all choral idioms, from experimental (see his “Nyon, Nyon”) to seriously challenging 21st century works, the two on this program among them.

Most arresting was a multi-layered piece with accompaniment, Reflections, a commissioned premiere based on the poetry of Thoreau. (The composer said he had spent some time at Walden Pond). Part 1 trenchantly captures both the rushing effect of “…(filling) all of our pores with our blood, …so that the wave of each inspiration shall break on our farthest shores.” Part 2 relaxes into “…the calmness of the lake.” Following the text, the music similarly reflected life’s yin and yang — a reflection of how Runestad writes.