If yuletide carols being sung by a choir are one of the most
effective tools for getting you in the Christmas mood, then
VocalEssence’s annual “Welcome Christmas” concerts are an ideal
destination. But conductor Philip Brunelle and his 128-voice group
always want to make certain that you’re getting something from them that
you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. Like premieres of new carols and
seldom-heard holiday fare.

But this year’s “Welcome Christmas” program sounds more like a
“greatest hits” collection than any they’ve offered in the past several
years. On Saturday night, Dec. 1, the Colonial Church of Edina sanctuary
was filled with the sound of “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells” and “O Holy
Night,” albeit with iconoclastic twists. The old carols still had the
ability to hypnotize and move listeners, but tunes familiar to those who
frequent local choral concerts spun the most magic.

Like John Rutter’s “What Sweeter Music,” which had its lovely
layers brought to life in such a moving manner Saturday night that you
might want to slip it into your customary Christmas music mix.
Similarly, Mark Sirett’s “Thou Shalt Know Him” is a piece of such
resonant reverence that it could supplant “Silent Night” as your
favorite post-shopping musical relaxant.

Speaking of “Silent Night,” you’re invited to sing it at these
concerts, but it floats gently on the surface of Daniel Kantor’s “Night
of Silence,” another slice of spiritual salve that deserves to be heard
more often.

And anyone who has attended more than one Cantus concert probably has
heard Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” but it was fleshed out further by the
men of the VocalEssence Chorus.

Each of the two new carols premiered proved strong, with David
Biedenbender’s “This Night” simply beautiful. Soprano Maria Jette’s
voice was suitably angelic for Ottorino Respighi’s “Laud to the
Nativity,” and the choir aptly theatrical for excerpts from Dominick
Argento’s opera “The Masque of Angels.” But those more-extended and
ambitious pieces were outshone by the warm blanket of sound provided on
the concert’s softest songs.


Who: VocalEssence Chorus & Ensemble Singers with chamber orchestra, conductor Philip Brunelle and soprano Maria Jette

What: “Welcome Christmas”

When and where: 4 p.m. Sundays Dec. 2 and 9, Plymouth
Congregational Church, 1919 LaSalle Ave., Minneapolis; 7:30 p.m. Friday,
Dec. 7, Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, 12650 Johnny Cake Ridge
Road, Apple Valley; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, Trinity Lutheran
Church, 115 N. Fourth St., Stillwater

Tickets: $45-$20, available at 612-371-371-5656 or vocalessence.org

Capsule: A mix of fresh and familiar that’s sweetest at its softes