Hear­ing voices

Pasatiempo - - Random Acts -

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

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