A New Beginning

By Laura Latzko

Jeff Harris says goodbye during Sonoran Desert Chorale’s ‘Sing On’ show

Jeff Harris has directed the Sonoran Desert Chorale since he founded the group 25 years ago. After the chorale’s “Sing On” concerts, he’s closing that chapter. 

Recently, Harris retired from his position as director of choral activities at Westwood High School in Mesa, where he worked for 31 years. He has also stepped down as music director for First United Methodist Church of Mesa, where he worked over 20 years. 

A desire to travel and spend more time with his grandchildren led to his decision to retire.  

The new choir director has been decided but not yet announced. 

Harris says the final concert of the season will be bittersweet for him and longtime members of the choir who have been involved for over 20 years.

“It’s going to be hard to give it up. The people and the relationships that we’ve created over the years in the ensemble are special,” Harris says. “Through all of the things that we’ve done together, there’s a whole lot of trust that has been earned and also gained or given through what we do on a weekly basis when we are in season … So, it’s going to be hard, but there’s a new chapter for me to experience, and it’s time to let go and move on.” 

The final concert of the season is focused on the impact of music on people’s lives and features tunes with themes of hope, peace and love. 

“Music is the kind of thing that speaks to people in different ways. You can equate people’s intense love to sing because of the texts that are there … That’s what happens to you as a singer … The senses as you make music are like the expressions of love. It can be very intense,” Harris says.  

The choir will perform favorites from its repertoire in celebration of Harris’ final concert and the close of the 25th season. One of those shows is 3 p.m. Sunday, May 5, at La Casa de Cristo Lutheran Church, 6300 E. Bell Road, Scottsdale.

The concert will have works from composers from around the world, including Rene Clausen, Dan Forrest, Morten Lauridsen and Lloyd Pfautsch. 

One of the pieces in the concert, Craig Hella Johnson’s folky song “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” was arranged for Dolly Parton.  

Through Dan Forrest’s “Oread Farewell,” Harris will say his goodbye. Within the piece, one of the finals in the concert, three sopranos perform in an echo style.  

Harris says the piece pays tribute to the memories the choir has made together. 

“We have experienced many moments over 25 years … A whole lot of music has come and gone through us, and we’ve all experienced those things together,” Harris says. 

The concert will end with Clausen’s “Joyful Journey,” a piece written specifically for the chorale’s 20th anniversary.  

The concert takes audiences through different emotions and sounds. In Dan Forrest’s piece “You Are the Music,” for example, a soprano and horn player stand on opposite ends of the stage and have a conversation through music. 

“There’s going to be a lot of power, a lot of emotional content, a lot of inward power when it comes to the impact of the text on people and the relationships that we’ve had as an ensemble with each other … Sometimes, over the years, we would enter into a piece, and on the first impression, they would look up and roll their eyes possibly. I would say, ‘Well, give it time.’ Usually, you win them over, through the experience of learning the piece, and that’s what music does. It’s transforming,” Harris says. 

During the concert, chorale members will sing in different languages, including Spanish, Czech, Italian and French. A cellist, pianist, violinist, percussionist and horn player will accompany the choir.  

Throughout the concert, Harris plans to dedicate pieces to mentors who have impacted his life. Z. Randall Stroope’s piece “Amor de Mi Alma” is a tribute to his wife. 

“Without her, this whole experience would not have happened, because of the support that she gave and her involvement throughout this,” Harris says. 

This season, the chorale has performed repertoire from its 25 years of performance. The season has included audience favorite, Christmas and spiritual concerts.  

For the first concert of the season, the organization enlisted the help of supporters to choose music for the program. The concert featured sacred and secular music from the group’s repertoire. 

Musical love affair

This is the end of a long love affair for Harris, who has built a career in music over nearly 40 years. His decision to pursue music started while attending college in northern Iowa, where he was part of a choral society. 

“My experience there was really influential in getting me to go into this art form as a vocation,” Harris says. 

Harris came to Arizona to pursue a master’s degree in music from ASU. Along with founding the chorale, Harris has held positions such as president of the Arizona chapter of the American Choral Directors Association.  

His work developing and nurturing the chorale has been among his biggest accomplishments. During Harris’ time with the choir, the group has performed over 100 concerts for the community.

Harris started the choir 25 years ago to provide performance opportunities for community members interested in choral music.  

Since 2001, the choir has done six European tours, performing in cities such as Prague, Dublin, Rome, Budapest and Munich.

The group has sung a variety of music, including Russell Wilson’s patriotic piece “Prelude to Glory,” songs by George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein and a bluegrass choral piece. 

The chorale has worked with different musicians and ensembles over the years, including 17-piece and 35-piece orchestras.

The singers are from different backgrounds, including engineers, music educators and homemakers. It started with 48 singers and has grown to 64. Each season, it has new spots for around six new performers. Prospective members must audition.

“We have a lot of people who have a history themselves of singing through college, and they bring those skills to us. This is not a ‘y’all come’ choir. They have to be able to sight read. They sing a solo to audition. If they make the cut, then we add them,” Harris says.  

The Sonoran Desert Chorale’s
“Sing On”

3 p.m. Sunday, May 5

La Casa de Cristo Lutheran Church, 6300 E. Bell Road, Scottsdale

$15 for seniors and students; $18 general admission


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