Jeff Harris has an exacting ear for detail. At a recent rehearsal, the Sonoran Desert Chorale’s founding director was extremely deliberate in making sure each musical piece sounded the best it could.
He reprimanded singers who spoke out of turn; started from scratch if a single detail went awry; mocked the singers when their tone wasn’t quite right; and, for one melancholy piece, asked the chorale to feel “woe” as they sang.
“You’re only as good as your last performance,” says Harris. “It is our duty to work hard and keep the levels high.”
Harris — who is also the director of choral activities and chair of the performing arts department at Mesa’s Westwood High School, where he’s been for 27 years — has kept the diverse 56-piece Sonoran Desert Chorale going for 12 seasons.
Many of the chorale’s singers are music educators and performance majors, but Harris says that they also share the company with “professional people like Allied and Motorola engineers . . . and homemakers — it’s just the whole gamut.
“That’s the beautiful thing about a community choir. We have people who work during the week, and this is their outlet for singing.”
All of the vocalists are volunteers.
“I think it can be difficult to find adequate time to rehearse because I work part time,” says first soprano Ann Kelley, “but because I enjoy singing so much, all of the sacrifices of time and expenses are worth it.”
“I’ve never done it for pay,” adds bass Seth Root, “because it’s just so much fun.”
The chorale has tackled everything from sacred music to Americana to Broadwaystyle musical theater, and their Sunday Mesa Arts Center concert boasts a multicultural theme — at the previously mentioned rehearsal, they ran through a Chinese folk song, several Irish tunes, two pieces from the Republic of Georgia, a gospel tune and a Malay folk song.
The rehearsal also showcased the music’s many challenges — the chorale spent 35 minutes learning how to correctly pronounce Mandarin Chinese syllables before practicing the song.
ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC
“These folks are dedicated singers,” says Harris. “They truly love to sing, and many make great efforts to sing on a weekly basis, some driving nearly an hour from west Phoenix, Ahwatukee or Carefree to sing with the chorale.”
For them, the effort is always worth it.
“It’s challenging,” says first alto Linda Russell, “and it’s fun.”
The chorale gets its income from ticket sales, patron contributions and a nominal yearly membership fee that Harris says “barely covers two concerts’ folders of music. Consequently, we attempt to market our performances to potential ticket buyers as well as constantly pursue donors from the community.”
Many of the singers’ fondest memories of the chorale are their trips to Europe. The ensemble went to Austria, Switzerland and Italy in 2001, and in 2004 went to the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany. They’re hoping to visit Italy again in 2007.
In 2001, the chorale sang in 14 cathedrals, including Venice’s St. Mark’s Cathedral and Salzburg Cathedral, where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was baptized.
“Those kinds of experiences, you just can’t duplicate,” says Harris.