Preaching to the chorus
Roughly forty-three million Americans will perform choral music this year, a number which keeps rising, according to Joshua Habermann, music director of Santa Fe Desert Chorale. A lot of that singing is going on in churches. Desert Chorale, Santa Fe’s resident professional choral group, however, exists in a more secular niche — it is one of a handful of professional American choruses not connected to an opera company or orchestra. And its mission is artistic rather than spiritual, at least officially.
Not that Desert Chorale has anything against churches. This summer, the 24-member group will perform at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, the Church of the Holy Faith, and Loretto Chapel — all in Santa Fe — as well as at the Cathedral Church of St. John in Albuquerque. Habermann, now beginning his seventh season with the group, programs concerts using themes, like this summer’s “Transcendence,” “Serenade to Music,” “Venetian Splendor,” and “Hidden Treasures of Byzantium.” He includes sacred music alongside secular classical pieces, and has been known to feature gospel and folk music. “The practice of great choral music has been sponsored and supported by churches for its history, but I came at it as an outsider. I loved getting to know church music,” he said. Habermann grew up in San Francisco and earned a PhD in conducting from the University of Texas, Austin. He was the director of choral studies at the University of Miami before taking a position directing the chorus of the Dallas Symphony.
“Transcendence,” the opening-weekend program, which runs from Thursday, July 9, through July 12, will feature Herbert Howells’ Requiem. “This is a spectacular piece. It’s a late-20th-century work — beautiful, interesting, and complex. Great choruses use this piece to show off their subtlety. These are harmonies not just anyone can take on.” The first half of the program is mostly German music, he said. Johannes Brahms, Johann Kuhnau, Felix Mendelssohn, and Heinrich Schütz will be represented. The performances will take place in the Cathedral Basilica and the Cathedral Church of St. John in Albuquerque, where the acoustics match the fullest sound of the chorale and the vaulting melodies in the music, Habermann said.
“Venetian Splendor” will run in repertory with “Serenade to Music.” The former uses just eight voices, features intimate vocal chamber music written during 17th and 18th centuries, and takes place at Loretto Chapel starting July 21. The latter, opening July 23, focuses on English music and is performed at the Church of the Holy Faith. Pieces by Benjamin Britten, William Byrd, John Dowland, Edward Elgar, Gerald Finzi, Orlando Gibbons, Robert Pearsall, and Richard Shephard will be featured. The 16 singers in the program will take on 16 soloist parts in Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music.
“Hidden Treasures of Byzantium,” the last concerts of the season, opens on Aug. 6, and will present Eastern Orthodox music from Russia, Greece, and other Eastern European countries at the Cathedral Basilica and the Cathedral Church of St. John. “We’re bringing in extra singers; I call them sub-woofers, the super low basses who rumble like crazy,” Habermann said. The concert will feature the world premiere of a Desert Chorale commission by Ivan Moody, Aflame. Moody is a musicologist specializing in Eastern Orthodox music, a composer, and Orthodox priest. — M.W.S.