Duet: And Two to Carry Your Soul Away

The Sessions: Wes Phillips

Tuesday, November 18, 1997, was chilly and clear; Santa Fe had received its first snowfall of the season only two days before. Toward dusk, heavy fog drifted down from the hills overlooking the city, blurring the crisp lines that distinguish "Santa Fe light" from that elsewhere.

"Oh no!" I thought, as engineer John Atkinson, executive producer Gretchen Grogan, photographer David Hendrick, and I ferried recording equipment into Loretto Chapel. "Ida's going to have a tough time maintaining tune..." A logical suspicion, but one that ultimately proved completely unfounded. We were forced to turn off the heaters in the chapel because they were noisy, so the damp cold was a problem for those of us sitting behind the Nagra—but it never seemed to affect Ida Levin, who played with such intense concentration that sometimes she seemed about to levitate off the floor as she chased a melodic line into the ether. And, as you can hear in the Schulhoff Sonata for Violin, Ida Levin's ability to maintain tune should never have been in question.

We chose to record the Schulhoff in Loretto Chapel because John Atkinson had been so struck by its reverberant character when Robert Harley recorded guitarist Bruce Dunlap and bassist Dan Kolton there in 1989 (footnote 1). Loretto Chapel is a lovely, small stone chapel in the gothic revival style, with a suspended wooden floor that serves as a tympanic membrane to reinforce the amount of reverberation the chapel can sustain—you might even say it rings.

The chapel was constructed by Projectus Mouly, the 18-year-old son of Antoine Mouly, architect of Santa Fe's St. Francis Cathedral, to provide a place of worship for the Sisters of Loretto, who had established an academy to educate Santa Fe's young ladies. The chapel was patterned after Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and its graceful stone façade provides a contrast to the more traditional adobe construction that predominates the downtown area. (Local legend has it that the young architect was so sensitive to criticism of his church that, disheartened, he quit the project, fell in with bad companions, took to drink, and died thereafter of pneumonia.)

The chapel is best known for the beautiful spiral staircase leading to its choirloft. Again, according to local legend, construction was nearly complete when the nuns realized that the staircase called for in the plans would never fit. Since it would be unseemly for the sisters to scramble up a ladder to the choir, they dedicated a devotional novena to St. Joseph, patron saint of woodworkers. On the ninth and last day of the novena, an itinerant carpenter riding a burro showed up to construct what is now known as the "miraculous" staircase—a stressed wooden spring that describes two complete 360 degree turns with no central support. When the sisters sought the carpenter in order to pay him, he had vanished. Some Santa Feans insist that the carpenter was St. Joseph himself.

Footnote 1: This recording can be heard on Stereophile's Test CD 1 (STPH002-2). To obtain Test CD 1, Duet, or any of the other Stereophile recordings, visit the "Recordings" portion of this website.