10/25/07: Singers, bluegrass band put new spin on sacred
By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk
The Grand Rapids Press
GRAND RAPIDS — America long has been a melting pot of
music from all over the world.
That’s how jazz evolved, when melody and rhythm of
African-Americans met with harmonies and musical instruments
that originated in Europe.
Now imagine a merger of bluegrass with sacred choral music.
Philip Brunelle, artistic director of the Minnesota-based
choral ensemble VocalEssence, was intrigued by the idea.
"People who know me know I’d consider
anything," he said. "But I didn’t want it to
be a square peg in a round hole."
The 32-member VocalEssence Ensemble Singers together with
the bluegrass band Monroe Crossing on Saturday will give the
Michigan premiere of "The World Beloved: A Bluegrass
They will appear as part of the Artist Series of Calvin
College to perform the original work by Carol Barnett.
"People on both sides were just charmed by how honest
and friendly this music is," said Brunelle, who founded
the ensemble in 1969.
The VocalEssence Ensemble Singers aren’t new to unusual
The ensemble appears frequently on National Public
Radio’s "A Prairie Home Companion" and has
made two recordings with the radio show’s host and
creator, Garrison Keillor.
The professional ensemble, part of a much larger chorus of
100 volunteers, has performed twice, by invitation, in the
World Choral Music Symposium. Their recorded works include
"The Witness Collection," a four-CD set of music
written by 20th century African-American composers, as well
as the just-released "A Bluegrass Mass."
Calvin College professor Pearl Shangkuan, music director of
the Calvin Alumni Choir, recently participated in a workshop
sponsored by Chorus America. Conductors worked with
VocalEssence over three days.
"From the first to the last conductor, they sang their
best, even though I know they must have been dead
tired," Shangkuan said.
Besides "A Bluegrass Mass," VocalEssence Ensemble
Singers on Saturday also will perform a variety of music by
U.S. composers. The works form a "wide brush of what
American music can be all about," Brunelle said.
"I think American music is eclectic. There’s a lot
of styles that are out there," Brunelle said. "I
think it’s important for us to celebrate the composers
Earlier on Saturday afternoon, VocalEssence will participate
in a workshop sponsored by the Michigan chapter of the
American Choral Directors Association.
Meanwhile, Barnett, the composer of "A Bluegrass
Mass," will join Calvin College professor David Fuentes
for his fifth annual workshop. "Might You be a
Composer?" is for high school students interested in
Brunelle and his assistant director, Sigrid Johnson, will
arrive Friday to work with two of Calvin College’s
student ensembles, Capella and the Women’s Chorale.
Guest clinicians often offer the same instructions that
regular conductors do, Brunelle said. They just put it