February 19, 2005
Jeff Harris wore three hats when he recently joined about 7,000 peers for the American Choral Directors Association convention in Los Angeles.
He went as founder-director of the Sonoran Desert Chorale, as director of music at First United Methodist Church in Mesa and as the director of choral activities and the performing arts department chairman at Mesa’s Westwood High School.
"I came back with 40 pounds of music and CDs," he said. "I think in three different realms," he said — community chorale, church choir and high school singers.
"Choral music has never been healthier, whether at the children’s level, middle schools and high schools, community choirs, church choirs, college and university choirs," said Harris, who is preparing his 55-member Sonoran Desert Chorale for two "Pathways to Peace" concerts Feb. 26-27.
It will feature John Rutter’s Mass of the Children, the first major work by the renowned British choral composer after his 19-year-old son, Christopher, died in a pedestrian-car accident in 2001.
"This crushing blow silenced the composer for a while," Harris said. The Mass of the Children is seen as Rutter’s effort to pay tribute to not only his son, a singer and computer buff, but "it is sort of like paying the debt for all the music he sang as a boy," said Harris, who calls the Mass a "beautiful work, crafted with eloquence in Rutter’s own distinguishable sound."
The Sonoran Desert Chorale will be joined by the Phoenix Children’s Chorus at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26 at First United Methodist, 15 E. First Ave., Mesa, and 3 p.m. Feb. 27 at Valley Presbyterian Church, 6947 E. McDonald Drive, Paradise Valley.
Harris, who earned a bachelor and master degrees in music in 1977 and 1978 respectively from Arizona State University, worked a year teaching high school vocal music in Algona, Iowa, when his ASU mentor and teacher, the late Douglas McEwen, called to tell him about an opening at Westwood. He accepted the job in 1979 and is now in his 26th year there directing choral music. He directed choirs at Scottsdale United Methodist Church before accepting a similar post in the Mesa church in 1993.
The idea for a community choir had been with him from the mid-1970s, when Harris sang in a choral society in his hometown of Fort Dodge, Iowa. Not long after taking the choir post at First United Methodist, he and about eight others gathered in his home to discuss starting a choral group. "We wanted to create something that was different," Harris said. They didn’t want to be tied to an institution and wanted singers to pass auditions. Harris said he was amazed by how many people turned out to audition.
"I didn’t want it to be larger than 48 singers, but it now ranges between 54 and 58 because every semester comes along and people have challenges in their lives and they have to take a semester off," he said.
Many in the chorale have worked as vocal music educators and find gratification in singing with trained and serious adult singers. Harris has taken the chorale twice on singing tours in Europe where they have performed in grand cathedrals where master composers introduced their works.
"For me, it is the musical quality, and there’s a certain spiritual quality," said Mary Ladman, an four-year chorale alto. "Anytime you sing in a group, I think, you have certain amount of soul that is expressed individually and as a group."
A charter member of the chorale, Jim Nelson, spends Wednesday nights in choir practice for Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills and Thursday nights in chorale rehearsal at First United Methodist Church. His wife, Josie, is also in the chorale.
"That really lends a whole other level of gratification," he said. "This is one thing that my wife and I do together — something that a lot of couples may not be able to do because they may not be doing something that closely together on a frequent basis."
Being surrounded by "really high-quality singers" is an amazing experience, Nelson said. "We’re all sharing the same experience and really working hard toward a common goal. I don’t think people really look at being in a chorale as being teamwork, but it really is."
Meg Tinsley, a piano accompanist for five children and youth choirs at First United Methodist Church and a member of the adult choir, said her Sonoran Desert Chorale work tops off her "passion for music in all forms. It has provided me an opportunity to sing deeply spiritual music and extremely well-written music," said Tinsley, who will be a soloist in the Rutter concerts and has been singing with the chorale for nine years.
The Rutter work, with its emphasis on peace, is important music, she said. "It is amazing that some people are really blessed with the ability to take all that they hear and put it into such a beautiful piece of music for others to experience. I think a lot of people are so caught up with pop culture that they don’t open themselves to what choral music offers, and I think they are missing out on a lot."
If you go
What: Sonoran Desert Chorale’s concert of "Mass of the Children" by John Rutter
When/where: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26, First United Methodist Church of Mesa, 15 E. First Ave.; 3 p.m. Feb. 27, Valley Presbyterian Church, 6947 E. McDonald Drive, Paradise Valley
Cost: $12, $10 for students and seniors.
Information: (480) 833-7059 or www.sonorandesertchorale.com.