A magical choral pairing: St. Martin’s Chamber Choir and Santa Fe Desert Chorale
A review by Ruth L. Carver
On February 24, Denver’s St. Martin’s Chamber Choir hosted the Santa Fe Desert Chorale in a joint concert as they passed through the Mile High City on a mini-tour. The event fit conveniently into each choir’s season, but it was also a celebration of the long history between the two groups. St. Martin’s founder and director Timothy J. Krueger sang in Santa Fe’s summer seasons throughout the mid-1990s, and it was there that he got the push to found his own professional choir in Denver. Over the years, they have exchanged other personnel, and though the choirs have distinct personas, both offer the best of choral music for this region. Together, the two choirs gave a luminous concert full of spirit and soul at Montview Presbyterian Church.
SMCC took up the first portion of the concert, offering five pieces by composer and choir member Terry Schlenker. Schlenker has long been a favorite of Krueger’s, and the choir has premiered many of his works over the years. Heard back-to-back, Schlenker’s individual style emerged consistently in these selections. Ideal for this choir’s crystalline sound, he has tone clusters and subtle dissonances appear again and again, in idiosyncratic deliveries of text. Here, the choir sang Schlenker’s “Laudate Dominum,” a version of this song of praise that was restrained and haunting.
Two of the newer pieces, “The Poem, The Song, The Picture” and “Sleeping at Last,” most successfully showed Schlenker’s sense of phrasing. The first, a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, and the second by Christina Rossetti, made wonderful use of overlapping voices to achieve magical effects, made clear by Krueger as he shaped his choir’s trademark pure, straight-tone blend. The subject matter of these poems also connected most clearly to the mystical program sung by the Santa Fe Desert Chorale on the second portion of the evening.
Under music director Joshua Haberman, the Desert Chorale gave a truly inspired performance in a uniquely thought-provoking collage of texts and diverse pieces, entitled “Dancing the Mystery.” Excerpts of writings by Sufi mystic writers Rumi and Hafiz intermingled with a breadth of musical choices, and the program helpfully delineated small groupings for the listeners to consider as one before applauding. Rumi is extremely popular now in America, and while Hafiz is perhaps less familiar, the readings from these two authors both roused audible sighs and sounds of awe from the audience. The Desert Chorale comes together from across the country for each season, and has a staggeringly full sound. Each work on this program, put side by side with the mystical readings, took on new meaning, and though vastly different in style, all showcased the incredible artistry of this choir.
After their third selection, I just about stopped taking notes because it was clear that every piece was equally special. Haberman effortlessly navigated his group, displaying a wonderfully blended sound that retained the exuberance of solo singing. Shawn Kirchner’s Heavenly Home set of three songs were simple and stirring in their old timey hymn feel, and their familiar Christian sentiments were given a richness of meaning as paired with ruminative and pithy readings like Hafiz’s adage: “Now/That/All your worry/Has proved such an/Unlucrative/Business,/Why/Not/Find a better/Job.” The women of the group were particularly impressive in Abbie Betinis’ “We Have Come,” a raw, celebratory song in Farsi that harnessed the full range of their voices and spirit, and in Michael McGlynn’s “Jerusalem,” which brought audience members to tears with its indescribable, angelic power. The two choirs joined together for a final spiritual, “Way Over in Beulah Lan,'” in a straightforward yet rousing arrangement by Stacey Gibbs. Whatever the mystery was for each audience member, the music and experience of this evening certainly danced it.