Dec. 3, 2007 – Pioneer Press: VocalEssence has tradition in shiny new wrapper
By Rob Hubbard, Pioneer Press
Fresh or familiar? How do you like your holiday arts offerings?
Do you prefer to wrap yourself in a warm, comfortable collection of memories or discover new insights in old themes?
Conductor Philip Brunelle and his VocalEssence choirs lean
toward the latter, an admirable artistic choice at this tradition-bound
time of year. But their annual ‘Welcome Christmas!’ concerts also offer
ample opportunity to hear the choirs wrap some favorite carols in their
smooth, sweet harmonies. And a balanced blend of the traditional and
contemporary made Sunday’s concert the most satisfying holiday offering
VocalEssence has presented in a number of years.
It helps that Brunelle and company set out with a clear theme:
Carols that would have been sung by 19th-century immigrants arriving in
Minnesota. With the aid of some exceptional arrangements, the
VocalEssence Chorus and Ensemble Singers evoked the holiday soundtracks
within the households of families from Poland, France, Norway, Germany,
Ukraine, England and Sweden. Interspersed between them were three world
premieres: a wonderfully engaging ‘Love-Song Serenade’ from San
Francisco-based composer Conrad Susa and the two winners of
VocalEssence’s annual carol contest.
The Susa was a standout. Perhaps inspired by the popularity of
the composer’s ‘Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest’ –
which has been performed on more than one past ‘Welcome Christmas!’
program – Brunelle returned to the well with a commission for a new piece.
Of the new carols, Stephen Main’s ‘The Darkest Midnight in
December’ was the more completely realized. Both employed celeste, but
Main played to the choir’s harmonic strengths and chose a lovely text
by 18th-century author William Devereux.
Among the many European traditions explored, the works from
Poland and Sweden that bookended the journey were particularly well
sung. And some of that comforting familiarity could be found in songs
from Ukraine (‘Carol of the Bells’) and England (‘I Saw Three Ships’).
One could grouse about the paucity of Celtic representation among these
carols of the immigrants, but a concert-ending singalong on the
Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s ‘Messiah’ perhaps counted for
something. It was premiered in Dublin, anyway.
Rob Hubbard is an associate producer for American Public Media’s "Performance Today." He can be reached at email@example.com or 651-228-5247.
Who: The VocalEssence Chorus, Ensemble Singers and Chamber Orchestra with
conductor Philip Brunelle
What: "Welcome Christmas!"
When and where: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Normandale Lutheran
Church, 6100 Normandale Road, Edina; 4 p.m. Sunday, Plymouth
Congregational Church, 1900 Nicollet Ave., Mpls.
Call: 612-624-2345 or visit www.vocalessence.org.
Capsule: Keeping a holiday tradition fresh.