The Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble presented a concert titled Songs of Peace as an optimistic Christmas offering. Its 13 members are not vocal professionals, but director Linda Raney has cultivated them beyond the level a listener would anticipate of an amateur group. The repertoire tends toward the modern, and the singers rose bravely to this season’s challenges of dense chords (in Ivo Antognini’s Agnus Dei), interlocked rhythms (in Paul Gibson’s Dona Nobis Pacem), and stark dissonances (in Manolo Da Rold’s Laudate Dominum).
Every year, the choir makes a point of commissioning, mastering, and premiering new compositions. This program unveiled Words of Peace, a five-movement cycle with music by Linda Rice Beck to texts selected from Hebrew prayers and readings by Mickey Bond and Sue Katz, who underwrote the commission. All three — Beck, Bond, and Katz — are members of the Women’s Ensemble and were accordingly well attuned to the group’s capacities and inclinations. Most of the choir’s repertoire is of a spiritual sort, and these verses — partly in Hebrew, partly in English — fit that description exactly. Beck expanded the sonic palette by incorporating touches of percussion and an obbligato part for flute, the latter nicely played by Charly Drobeck. The flute intensified the wistful quality of the opening movement, “Shalom, Words of Peace,” and in the fourth movement, “Shalom Rav,” the instrument’s low register provided a husky overlay to the altos’ melody, the breadth of texture yielding the group’s finest expanses in this concert.
The Santa Fe Desert Chorale is a professional ensemble, and its 24 singers (directed by Joshua Habermann) projected admirable vocal quality and technical facility in much of its Carols + Lullabies program. The group’s opening numbers were its finest, particularly as the singers, divided into eight parts, built momentum in Jean Mouton’s early-16th-century motet Nesciens Mater, maintaining solid tone and unwavering intonation through to the ends of its long-spanning phrases. Mendelssohn’s Weihnachten was a fleeting delight, and Grieg’s Ave Maris Stella offered a welcome glimpse into that composer’s infrequently sampled choral oeuvre. Not much else in the playlist had deep musical value. Carol arrangements ranged from the pleasant, such as Vaughan Williams’ setting of the “Wassail Song,” to the abysmal; the worst was an annoying setting, by Michelle Hynson, of a French carol identified as “On High,” in which the choir’s sopranos emitted a pinched timbre that was often their default in the course of the evening. Frank La Rocca’s O Magnum Mysterium did not live up to the admiring spoken introduction Habermann provided for it, proving enervated, dull, and predictable. A couple of singalong (or, as the printed program put it, “SING ALONG!”) numbers fell flat, but the program found its footing again near the end, with a lovingly conveyed close-harmony arrangement by Douglas Andrews of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Why, one wondered, would the program identify the arranger but not the actual authors? In this case, they were the estimable songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.
Connecting with the audience through a few cordial words is fine, but there was way too much talking in both of these concerts. I think I counted six separate speeches at each program. At the Women’s Ensemble, the content seemed heartfelt, but in the case of the Desert Chorale, it was mostly unctuous promotion. Perhaps a New Year’s resolution is in order.
— James M. Keller