In the Media

Birmingham Post: Essence of Music in Choral Singing

Birmingham Post: Essence of music in choral singing

Philip Brunelle in action.

Leading American choral conductor Philip Brunelle talks to Terry Grimley ahead of his choir’s visit to Birmingham.

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As
well as giving the world such pop luminaries as Bob Dylan and Prince,
the northern state of Minnesota has a reputation throughout the United
States for its tradition of choral singing.

The twin cities of
Minneapolis/St Paul are said to boast around 300 choirs, ranging from
the church and high school variety to ensembles of international
quality. And right at the pinnacle of this choral scene is
VocalEssence, which makes its Birmingham debut at the Town Hall next
Sunday.

Like Birmingham’s own Ex Cathedra, VocalEssence is
still run by its founding director and is currently in the midst of
celebrations for its 40th anniversary, of which this five-concert
English tour is part. Also like Ex Cathedra, the 130-member Vocal
Essence has a choir-within-a choir, a 32-voice fully professional group
called the Ensemble Singers which is representing the choir on this
visit. Its members are required to re-audition annually to maintain the
purity of its blended sound.

The tour, which links venues as
different yet iconic in their contrasting ways as King’s College
Chapel, Cambridge, and the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, was arranged
through director Philip Brunelle’s personal contacts in the English
choral world, including the CBSO’s chorus director Simon Halsey.

Brunelle
is an anglophile whose efforts in promoting British music in the US
brought him an honorary MBE in 2005. But next Sunday’s concert offers
the Birmingham public a rare opportunity to hear expert interpretations
of a distinctly American tradition, ranging from William Billings, a
contemporary of George Washington, to Eric Whitacre, a former rock
musician now in his late 30s whose huge popularity in America is
beginning to be replicated here.

In between, the mix of
original compositions and arrangements of folksongs and spirituals
features such familiar names as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and
Stephen Foster.

Probably like many British music enthusiasts, I
first registered Philip Brunelle’s name through his recording of
Benjamin Britten’s early American opera, Paul Bunyan, with the Plymouth
Music Series, released on the Virgin label in the 1980s. Bunyan is a
mythical hero from Minnesota, but it took me a while to register that
the Plymouth Music Series and VocalEssence are actually the same group,
with a name change as recent as 2002.

Speaking on the telephone from Minneapolis last week, Brunelle explained that various factors led to the change.

“One
of the biggest reasons we made the change is that one of the suburbs of
Minneapolis is a town called Plymouth,” he said. “When this was started
it was a lot smaller, and now it’s huge. Everyone was confused,
thinking that we were in Plymouth, Minnesota.

Naturally, I
found there was nothing I could tell Brunelle about the illustrious
history of Birmingham Town Hall that he didn’t already know. In fact,
he points out that he conducted the Minneapolis premiere of one of the
most famous works associated with it – Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius: “It
had never been done, and everyone was saying where has this lovely
piece of music been?”

He recalls how he met Sir Adrian Boult
and the great choral composer Herbert Howells through his friendship
with the composer Malcolm Williamson.

“It was at a time when
Boult was getting ready to do a performance of a piece by Vaughan
Williams and we had a wonderful time together. The same with Howells –
I remember he had pictures of Sir Charles Stanford and Sir Hubert Parry
on the wall and he said they’ve gone but I’m still here!

“I
always say that you never know if you don’t ask. I remember after
Britten died writing a note to Peter Pears and saying would you come
over and sing the five Canticles? He said I have never been asked to be
in a performance of all five. In the end he sang three and coached the
performances of the other two.

“The first year I started what
was then Plymouth Music Series I called up Aaron Copland, who I didn’t
know at all, and said why don’t you come to Minneapolis and conduct
your choral music? He said I have never been asked to do that – tell me
the date and I’ll cancel whatever I’m supposed to be doing.”

The
programme for Sunday’s concert is impressively wide-ranging, including
music by a native American composer, Brent Michael Davids, as well as
the African American Nathaniel Dett.

“Dett wrote this beautiful
setting of Ave Maria in about 1920, and I guarantee that if someone did
not know they would not identify it as being written by a black
composer. People tend to make suppositions, and I wanted to represent
some of the African American composers to show that it’s not just
spirituals.

“But obviously there are some wonderful, beautiful
spirituals. The piece Witness which we’re doing is one of the great
spirituals, and this arrangement is by Jack Halloran who is white and
was an arranger for all sorts of groups. His arrangement is the best
one out there.”

In addition to Eric Whitacre, other living
American composers featured in the programme include Ned Rorem, Aaron
Jay Kernis and Stephen Paulus. And there is a piece specially
commissioned from William Bolcom for the tour – not a choral work this
time, but an instrumental interlude for the choir’s resident pianist
Charles Kemper called Knock Out Rag.

Next Tuesday VocalEssence
will be performing at St John’s Smith Square in London on the day of
President Obama’s inauguration, when the audience will be invited to
join in the premiere of a new patriotic hymn with words by another
Minnesota celebrity – and frequent VocalEssence collaborator – Garrison
Keiller.