Dallas — Sam Brukhman’s Verdigris Ensemble opened its 2019-20 season on Halloween with a concert entitled Día de los Muertos, a celebration of culture and community. Produced in collaboration with Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico and cultural artist Ofelia Faz-Garza, it was a program set to honor the traditions of the Mexican holiday for which it is named with beautifully festive dancing, ornately decorated ofrendas, and a selection of music featuring all Latinx composers.
Brukhman’s enduring success opening night was the authenticity with which the program’s design came across. Held in Arts Mission Oak Cliff, the layout was cleverly orchestrated to give primary focus to the dancers, with audience members seated on either side of the main floor, where Alexandra Hernandez’s original choreography was displayed. Faz-Garza’s vivid, alluring designs were prominently displayed near the entrance and all about the stage.
It was through this deliberate set-up that the vision of this collaboration had effect, though its execution, from a musical perspective, was below the usual standard for this group.
There was more than one occasion of missteps and tuning issues, namely in the lower region of the choir. The rhythmically complex soundscapes of this music proved quite the challenge, with hurried tempos and percussive diction often driving the blend out of focus. The instrumental accompaniment was, for the most part, solid. Three percussionist joined piano and guitar in order to deliver a sound that was altogether culturally nuanced and effective, though the piano was at times a bit clangy.
There were, however, some brilliant moments to be heard from the choir. Soprano Meredith Tompkins provided a lovely lilting solo in Fonseca’s “Jubiabá,” and mezzo-soprano Katrina Burggraf’s feature in the Vicente Chavarria’s arrangement of the traditional folksong “La Llorona” was warm and haunting. Baritone Derrick Brown and tenors Marcos Ochoa and Max Ary offered well-rooted support as soloists in Ariel Ramiréz’ mass Misa Criolla, the five movements of which sprinkled throughout program.
The highlight of this program, for me, was from the younger artists. Dancers from ANMBF provided engaging storytelling that, at various times, connected beautifully with the colors and textures of the choir. Their commitment and focus was admirable and a complete joy to see. Also featured in the program was the W.E. Greiner Exploratory Arts Academy sixth grade choir. Led by director Bethany Ring, these young singers displayed an impressive array of vocal prowess and sturdy musicianship with a rousing rendition of Covarrubias’ “La Ofrenda.”
I would have wanted more from Brukhman’s choir in the way of tone and technicality, however, I tip my hat to the overall design of this program. Running through its core was a clear and evident narrative that aimed to celebrate a rich and vibrant culture and its traditions. The fact that so many community partners had a hand in bringing this concert together is a testament to the progressive approach this ensemble has adopted toward defining the choral arts in Dallas.