For its 40th birthday bash, VocalEssence still looks ahead – Pioneer Press Review by David Hawley
kicked off its 40th season Sunday with a bash at Orchestra Hall that
only the most soulless curmudgeon could find dissatisfying.
As much a birthday party as a concert, it had a little of
everything: tenors on roller skates, clattering tap dancers, an
original choral work extolling the audience to turn off those cell
phones, comic monologues by Garrison Keillor, a once-banned randy aria
from a Handel opera and a clangorous appearance by the University of
Minnesota Marching Band, complete with its crack flag squad.
There was some perfectly lovely music, too.
Philip Brunelle was barely out of college when he founded
VocalEssence — then known as the Plymouth Music Series — in 1969. In
his first season, then-24-year-old Brunelle talked Aaron Copland into
coming to Minnesota to conduct a concert of his vocal music.
The indefatigable Brunelle has been pushing the envelope ever
since. He now heads one of the biggest choral organizations in the
country, with 132 singers, a full-time administrative and educational
staff and an impressive résumé of recordings and commissions.
VocalEssence champions new vocal work and performances of
neglected music from the past. Nothing is too big or too obscure — and
audiences are often as mystified as they are charmed. The
organization’s courageous programming, in fact, reflects Brunelle’s
talent to make audiences appreciate programs while they sometimes are
enduring them. It’s a rare and wonderful gift, and the Twin Cities is better for it.
Sunday’s concert, for the most part, was a compendium of highlights
that served to display the astonishing breadth of the organization’s
activities — from comedy routines on "A Prairie Home Companion" to
seldom-heard works such as Benjamin Britten’s "Paul Bunyan" opera and
local composer Libby Larsen’s monumental oratorio "Coming Forth Into
A major highlight of the program was the organization’s 120th
commissioned work: a choral setting of Psalm 77 titled "O Joy!" by
Kitty Brazelton, a New England composer who straddles the
rock-punk-experimental genres. It’s a lovely piece that blends
foursquare harmonic writing with antiphonal elements and then suddenly
shifts into a rock ballad kind of rhythm before returning to an
The long list of performers involved in the gala included
soprano Maria Jette, tenors Vern Sutton and Dan Dressen — all longtime
Brunelle collaborators — tap dancers Kaleena Miller and Ricci Milan,
dancer/choreographer James Sewell and the Moore by Four jazz vocal
group led by Sanford Moore.
If there was a retrospective element to the concert, it was
downplayed. Always pushing forward, Brunelle ended the evening in
characteristic fashion by urging the audience to attend the next
VocalEssence event: a performance Oct. 17 at the Cathedral of St. Paul
that features the seldom-heard "Te Deum" by Hector Berlioz.
The massive work requires a big choir and a full orchestra with 12 harps. "We’ll have ’em," Brunelle promised.