Santa Fe Desert Chorale; Music from a Secret Chapel Blog

July 21, 2017
By Craig Smith

The Santa Fe Desert Chorale is presenting its 35th season this summer — and if the July 19 opening performance of the “Music From a Secret Chapel” repertoire is any indication, the group can be sure of more musically brilliant years to come. This evening of high-level and devoted music-making showed the ensemble at its best.

Singing a capella masterworks from varied countries, periods, and styles, the nine-voice ensemble of five women and four men, guided by music director Joshua Habermann, offered an insightful concert that worked superbly in the welcoming environment of Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel, which is tucked away on Mt. Carmel Road in east Santa Fe. Rather narrow for its height and length, the sparely decorated chapel has an enveloping but not mushy acoustic. Its clean architectural lines offer a powerful visual counterpart to the aural experience.

The Chorale contributed to the reflective attitude by having the singers use booklights on their music folders. This permitted most of the chapel lights to remain off, which gave a sense of intimate immediacy to the experience. A number of (artificial) candles placed around the performance area were another effective touch.

The repertoire of “Music From a Secret Chapel” is just that: mostly sacred works written for specific sites and uses, ranging from a medieval nunnery to the discreetly hidden Catholic chapels of post-Henry VIII Protestant England, and from the glories of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel to the great 16th-century churches and cathedrals of The Netherlands and Germany. Taken as a whole, it offered nice artistic balance as well as an interesting historical and musicological survey.

The concert is divided into six sections performed without intermission. “Holy Mother” offers a reflective, evocative chant by Hildegard von Bingen, and a touching Ave Maria by Josquin des Prez. “England” begins with an ancient chant from the Sarum Rite, followed by three evocative and musically luscious pieces by William Byrd — who as a recusant Catholic in the England of Elizabeth I faced, with his fellow worshippers, persecution and physical danger.

“Sistine Chapel I” explores soaring, intricate works by Tomás Luis de Victoria and Giovanni da Palestrina. “Concerto delle Donne” offers three secular pieces written for the justly famous female choirs of courtly Renaissance Italy. “In the North” is a survey of representative, decisive works by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and Michael Praetorius. “Sistine Chapel II” is devoted to one composition: the famed Miserere Mei, Deus of Gregorio Allegri.

Habermann is listed in the program as leader, not conductor, and that’s a perfect description of his role. When he did lead the singers, he did so with fluid, communicative movements and never belabored the beat; often he used only his right hand, which gave an impression of easy confidence while still controlling the output of sound well. It also spoke to how well-rehearsed the singers were, without being over-rehearsed — which is saying something. Anyone remotely familiar with choral music has heard ensembles as precise, and uninteresting, as clockwork.

For several pieces, Habermann let the singers guide themselves — notably in the von Bingen, the “Concerto dell Donne” section, and the closing Miserere mei. Again, adequate rehearsal clearly played a large part in how well these went. But it was also clear that the singers were very much in the moment, easily responding to minute variances in vocal production or tempo.

The overall vocal blend, the rock-solid intonation, and the clear-cut renderings of the texts yielded a balanced artistic whole. Volume was generally well-gauged for both the pieces and the hall. The men blended wonderfully, from the deep notes of the basses to the soaring sound of the tenors. The women were equally fluent, with an occasional sharpness in tone that appeared to be more due to the sonic environment than to any real intonation problem.

The concert-closing Allegri Miserere was performed with one group of singers in the chancel and a smaller echo ensemble in the rear of the chapel. The effect of the alternating choirs was powerful, especially given the contrast of the solemn chant heard up front, with the leaner sound and repeated soprano high Cs from the back. It capped a thoroughly persuasive — and enjoyable — evening.

“Music From a Secret Chapel” repeats at Immaculate Heart of Mary at 4 p.m. Sunday, July 23, and 8 p.m. Wednesday, August 2 and 9. It is heard in Albuquerque at the Cathedral Church of St. John at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 29.

Information on ticket ordering, and the other repertoires in the Chorale season, can be found elsewhere on this Website. Or call the Chorale at 505 988-2282.