Choral music so good it doesn't hurt.

Salisbury or Winchester it may not be, but the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis provided plenty of juicy acoustic ambience last Thursday for the Santa Fe Desert Chorale's opening concert of its 24 season. The evening's menu, one of six varied programs scheduled for the summer, was dubbed "Great Cathedral Music: Mystery and Majesty" and


offered a mini-tour of Western sacred music from the fourth century to just yesterday. Most of the time the Chorale sounded just plain divine.

Now in her fourth season as the group's conductor, Linda Mack laid out a filling feast including something old-plain-chant, Palestrina and Bach; something new-the world premiere of a Desert Chorale-commissioned piece by John David Earnest; something borrowed-Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," reconfigured by the composer as an

Agnus Dei

; and something altogether true-the Chorale's deeply felt commitment to expressive ensemble singing.

The Ambrosian chant

Te Deum

, serving as a processional, set an appropriately rapt tone for the concert. Pretty soon it should attain the on-a-single-breath expression it requires. Its quirky appendage, a brief cantata, "Dopo la Vittoria," set by Arvo Pärt in an unusually swift-paced, witty mood, got off to a too-slow start. The Bach motet that followed, "Lobet den Herrn," received a lyrical, youthful performance that could use some sharper definition of its complex fugal lines.

But Barber's infinitely sustained, transparent

Agnus Dei

could hardly have been better sung, with all the


scary white notes firmly supported and every exposed entrance clean and impeccable. Earnest's premiere-piece set a poem by Robert Bode, "The First Day," for chorus. Bode's Santa Fe-slanted lyrics offer opportunities for colorful interplay among the vocal and instrumental parts. The composer's skillful, earnest setting received an ovation from the crowded cathedral.

Among the many other items on Mack's varied sacred


, Jean Berger's "Alleluia" made a joyful impression, its Brazilian bounce reminiscent of New World


sacred-settings from the 17th century. The Chorale's finest work of the evening came with the pairing of two accounts of the

Ave Maria

, the first by Stravinsky and the other by California composer, Morten Lauridsen. Stravinsky's austere, intense setting received an equally intense reading that communicated the composer's urgent spirituality.

In contrast, the Lauridsen setting is an extended motet, rich, elaborate and densely harmonic. The Chorale conveyed the mystery of Luke's text with a performance combining the subtle inflection, on-the-money phrasing, and pure beauty of sound that mark choral singing at the highest level. And that's exactly what making a joyful noise is supposed to be all about.