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.

Other pieces on this program were joined in a thoughtful progression: “A Life’s Journey” included Little Fish (by William Wallis) about a newborn babe; Brian Turner’s Lullaby carries forward the young lad, Akbar, as a four year old; Texas Girl at the Funeral of her Father, by Randy Newman, was an affecting portrayal; and the last two pieces in this segment – And so I go on (Todd Boss) and I’ll Be on My Way by Shawn Kirchner — portray end-of-life experience. This is the way a program should unfold; thank you Dr. Habermann.

The program closed with three African-American spirituals, by Joseph Jennings, Moses Hogan, and Brandon Waddles, in that order. The last was a “boomer,” featuring a strong solo by baritone Brett Wells.

Elements of Excellence

Santa Fe Desert Chorale has broad appeal. Their range of repertoire is wide, designed for the choral aficionado and the casual listener alike. It offers its namesake community the opportunity to listen to and develop an ear for choral excellence, which stimulates the several choral ensembles in Santa Fe: amateur, community or church choirs.

SFDC’s programming and schedule pose challenges: extraordinary vocal demands; sometimes challenging, often unfamiliar literature; intensive rehearsal schedules; members living in a city that for most is not their home base for five weeks.

Many singers have been with this Chorale for five or 10 years — a continuity. We could notice that they are reasonably well paid (on the choral professional scale) but so are other, less accomplished choirs. They are not amateurs singing professionally; they are trained vocalists, caring for their voices and, most important, possessing an integrity of musicianship, i.e., knowing the notes and ready to make music.

SFDC. Photo: Chelsea Call.

SFDC. Photo: Chelsea Call.

How does such an accomplished musical institution come to be? What is the angle — angel — of the SFDC that kept it going? Yes, that was tongue in cheek. After managing the successful family business, Cameo, Inc., creators of Pearl Drops toothpaste and other cosmetic products, founding musical and artist director Lawrence Bandfield retired in the mid-1970s and followed his artistic passion, completing a choral directing degree and then directing several choral groups. In 1981 he founded and funded what he saw was a “revolution” in the national classical music scene: a professional choral group in the artistic enclave of Santa Fe as his ideal home base. He directed the Chorale from 1981 until 1998.

Bandfield knew enough to hook his dream to the festival format already existing in Santa Fe with S.F. Opera and Chamber Music, in addition to the native visual arts component. The patrons came, and they had another alternative besides instrumental and opera. They don’t span their season across the entire year, thus competing with local choirs. They do not draw only from the existing pool and compete for a singular pocket of voices. And they now have a world class conductor on the podium.

Joshua Habermann, the Chorale’s third permanent conductor and consummate professional, is ultimately as important as any other ingredient in taking the chorale to new heights. Habermann did his doctoral studies under Conspirare artistic director Craig Hella Johnson at the University of Texas at Austin and was Assistant Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, working with Vance George, prior to assumed the leadership of the Dallas Symphony Chorale in 2011. He also teaches conducting and choral literature at North Texas State University.

Gifted with gestural skill and programmatic acumen, Habermann must be close to the 10,000 hour benchmark. That, combined with a spiritual and studied approach to rehearsals and performances, represents a good percentage of what the Desert Chorale brings to the table.

There are three reasons why choral music is successful in Santa Fe. First, it was founded with a pretty large nest egg. The generous emolument from Bandfield’s family company paid for the singers to begin to assemble from every corner of the nation. Most choirs don’t have that.

Second, this is a truly touristy, artsy place, where, like the Oregon Coast, business volume happens largely in the summer.

Third and most important, the Chorale has grown over 37 years to reinvent itself as supporter of American composers; as a system that gives support to some of the best choral singers in the country; and finally, one where the choral art can be celebrated each summer in a rarified atmosphere of great literature and stunning performances. Clearly the Desert Chorale’s recent arc of success has resulted in the setting of a very high bar, which the choir and director continue to raise.

Portland choir director Bruce Browne directed Portland Symphonic Choir and choral music programs at Portland State University for many years and was Founder and Director of Choral Cross-Ties, a professional choral group in Portland.

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