David Vogels: The American Organist TAO August 2019
Many of you recognize Philip Brunelle as a world-class choral conductor, based on his tenure with Plymouth Congregational Church and the VocalEssence ensemble in Minneapolis—he’s currently celebrating his 50th anniversary with both organizations. You may also know him as an opera conductor and a director of music festivals all over the world. You undoubtedly follow his “Choral Old and New” column in TAO, where he carries on his mission of promoting great choral music with pithy commentary on overlooked and undiscovered gems. I remember him fondly from our time together on the AGO National Council in the 1990s. But I think his most noteworthy contribution to the arts has been his cultivation of new music for
chorus and organ.
“I started the idea of commissioning early on at Plymouth Church,” he told me. For the 1980 AGO National Convention in the Twin Cities, he assembled a Minnesota Anthem Anthology involving 29 local composers, whose works were premiered in area churches on the opening Sunday morning of the convention. “I’ve used the idea of commissions for all kinds of occasions,” said Brunelle. “I’m all about celebrating.” He has developed a first-name relationship with every major composer of the past half-century, to the point that composers have increasingly contacted him with their own ideas. VocalEssence (which began as the Plymouth Music Series) has commissioned more than 300 works over the past 50 years. Brunelle’s latest project for Plymouth Church involved a series of six commissions in honor of his wife, Carolyn— “the only one who’s been in the choir for all 50 years”—by women composers who are all friends of hers: Carol Barnett, Libby Larsen, Jocelyn Hagen, Melanie DeMore, Judith Bingham, and Cecilia McDowall.
I asked Brunelle to perform the impossible task of choosing his favorite children by identifying a few commissions for Plymouth Church or VocalEssence that have been particularly significant. He not only took up the challenge, but even provided a capsule summary of each piece in “Choral Old and New” style. Here are his seven selections, listed alphabetically by composer:
Dominick Argento, Gloria from The Masque of Angels. “In 1963, Argento was commissioned by the newly formed Center Opera Company (later the Minnesota Opera) to compose a church opera. The Gloria was one of the stunning parts of the opera, and many years later I asked Dominick if he would consider extracting the anthem, as it would make a marvelous piece by itself if he would just add an ending. He wasn’t sure that would work, but he agreed, and it became his best seller!”
Judith Bingham, Eden. “Judith is an English composer whose music makes frequent appearances at Plymouth Church—this piece was dedicated to my wife on her 70th birthday. Judith is fond of discovering unique texts, and this is one is no exception: the words of the 17th-century mystic Edward Taylor, in a setting for soprano solo, SA chorus, and an elaborate organ part. The Bingham harmonies are her own—rich with clusters, challenging but worth it!”
Calvin Hampton, Sing, My Tongue. “In 1981, the 89-rank Holtkamp organ was installed at Plymouth Church, and for Palm Sunday I commissioned Calvin to compose a work for choir and organ, expecting to get a short anthem. Instead, he composed a fivemovement cantata! I split it up between the introit, anthem, and offertory for the Palm Sunday service and have used individual movements in the years since. The third movement, ‘Faithful Cross,’ is a beautiful anthem that we have sung during Holy Week.”
Eskil Hemberg, Thou Who Art Over Us. “The Westminster Abbey Choir toured the U.S. in 1992 and were presented by VocalEssence in St. Paul Cathedral. I asked Eskil (then the intendant ofthe Royal Opera of Sweden) to compose an a cappella work for this concert. He chose the moving words of Dag Hammarskjöld, taken from his posthumous diary, Markings. It is a beautiful little work that I have used many times at Plymouth Church and with VocalEssence.”
Conrad Susa, Carols and Lullabies. “In the late 1980s, I asked Conrad to compose a companion to Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, but for SATB and harp. In 1992, we gave the premiere of a work written for SATB with harp—and guitar and marimba! It turned out to be a collection of traditional Spanish carols, which Conrad felt had the image of a Southwestern piñata party in a somewhat Renaissance style.”
Giles Swayne, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis II. “I knew of Swayne’s Mag and Nunc I, an exciting work he composed in 1982, and decided to write and see if a second setting might be composed. Unlike the first setting, this one was composed for double choir, four soloists (with the soprano as Mary), and a challenging organ part. Giles refers to the organ part as being a ‘squashed rondo’ and the work as having ‘excitement bordering on climax, much of the music being shamelessly squishy.’”
Judith Weir, a blue true dream of sky. “I have long admired Judith’s mastery of vocal color and so commissioned her in 2004 for my 35th anniversary at Plymouth Church. She chose to set a short poem by e.e. cummings (‘i thank You God for most this amazing day’) for soprano solo, two solo altos in the balcony, and SATB choir. It is a rhapsodic work that captures the allure of cummings’s poetry perfectly. It reappears at Plymouth Church with regularity!”
If you’re a choir director, you should certainly track down these works—or any of the hundreds
commissioned by Brunelle. I have nothing to add except “Happy Golden Anniversary!”
David Vogels, CAGO, is dean of the Denver Rocky Mountain AGO Chapter. He served three terms each as National Councillor for Competitions and New Music and as National Councillor for Professional Concerns. A freelance organist in the Denver area, he is executive editor of the Journal of Clinical Orthodontics and was the founding editor of Sommelier Journal.