Nothing like a weekend trip to Santa Fe switches on the cultural power pack in anticipation of the opening of the Amarillo arts season.
The Desert Chorale’s final concert of the season was held Friday, Aug 9 at the St. Francis Basilica. This ensemble, arguably the world’s finest, is led by Joshua Habermann, also director of the Dallas Symphony Chorus.
The program was entitled Luminosity: The Nature of Celestial Light, and never have I encountered such a combination of the profound, transcendent and exuberant in one program!
Four works enabled this celestial flight: two by living composers, then one each by Bach and Mendelssohn. Accessories to the voices and instrumentation were Los Santos on a high iconostasis blessing the sound by their imprimatur, and the vault of the basilica, which enfolded the listener in the aural ecstasy of the magnum mysterium.
Luminosity, by James Whitbourn, and commissioned for the Westminster
Choir College, is a series of seven tone poems drawn from the mystics of three faiths, all reflecting affirmation of the divine light in creation.
Sometimes the choristers projected an edgy dissonance, which crescendoed into a crash of the tam tam. Add to this, a Carnatic violist, Kimberly Fredenburgh, who played the southern Indian style with the sensual abandon of a gypsy. Then with the drone of the tempura serving as a continuo, this Whitbourn piece offered a sonic smorgasbord for the spirit.
In Luminosity’s afterglow, the Desert Chorale performed Bach’s Der Giest hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, a funeral dirge turned celebration of life.
The entire work has antiphonal potential as it is scored for two choirs, which in the first movement compliment and the second coalesce in a cascade of Baroque counterpoint while the third embraces a joyous Lutheran chorale structure.
Los Santos didn’t seem to mind. After all, Omnia ad maiorem Dei gloriam!
In the musical realm of Ave Maria’s, the versions of Schubert and Gonoud normally come to mind. Mendelssohn’s work, as performed by the Desert Chorale, needs inclusion in that short list.
A solo tenor opens and reappears throughout this lyrical piece. In fact, in contrast to the other Aves, heavenly lyricism overrides hagiography, thus omitting the assertion of any religious biases, and lifting the listener upwards of wings of art.
The final work on the program, Santiago, is the stunning finale to the four movement Path of Miracles by British composer Joby Talbot.
This section of the composition musically portrays the end of the medieval pilgrimage route from western Germany to its terminus at Santiago de Compostella. Taking up to two years to traverse, this Camino de Santiago became a dominant social feature of the Late Middle Ages.
The dictates of popular piety held that viewing the sacred skull of the apostle imparted lifelong absolution, with the faithful returning home blessed and blessing all.
The music of Santiago captures the heart of the believer as they are transformed, and the Desert Chorale transmitted that passion to the audience.
But the work poses multiple challenges to both conductor and performers. Sung in up to sixteen parts in multiple languages with divergent rhythms might sound like the recipe for choral glossolalia, but Maestro Habermann and the finest singers in the world climbed these mountains to deliver the full impact of the work.
This included, for the audience, empathy with the rebirth and walk in newness of life experienced by the pilgrim.
And, finally, the chorale exited in four lines through the nave continually offering the benediction “God help us now and evermore,” replete with choreographed dispensation of blessings, and diminuendo dominant until they had disappeared and the great vault was silent and still.
Then the audience rose as one, and, turning towards the narthex, offered a thunderous ovation, many pausing to wipe away tears.
Beethoven said that music can raise men to the divine. And, through the voices of the Desert Chorale, if we, in the audience on August 9, could not see the same celestial light as the mystics, saints and pilgrims, we could feel their transcendent joy in the divine.
The proximity of Santa Fe and the Desert Chorale only amplifies the amazing art already in Amarillo. That’s why we can say with certitude: “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!”