MinnPost.com: Choral Christmas concerts in full swing
If you ever needed evidence that Minnesota deserves its self-proclaimed title as “Choral Country,” now’s the time to find it.
Choral Christmas concerts are in full swing for the next few weeks,
and I started out the season last Sunday by attending the annual
“Welcome Christmas” performance by VocalEssence, which will be repeated
three times this weekend. But it won’t be the only game in town,
because the calendar is filled with singing. What follows is a short
list of some of the week’s more noteworthy concerts.
But first, some words about the concert I heard Sunday. VocalEssence
is one of the granddaddies of Christmas concertizing in these parts,
and its program this year is certain to be one of the most convivial.
The organization, propelled by the musically insatiable curiosity of
its founder, Philip Brunelle, has thrived over the past four decades by convincing audiences that vocal music is not for the timid.
This year’s “Welcome Christmas” concert doesn’t abandon that mindset
— the program features two world premieres and an American premiere —
but it also embraces the holiday need for both levity and comfort. The
concert paid respects to Felix Mendelssohn’s 200th birthday with several selections and also devoted half of the performance to works by John Rutter, the world’s preeminent composer and arranger of Christmas vocal music.
The program also had its lighthearted crowd-pleasers, including
Rutter’s “Brother Heinrich’s Christmas,” a narrated piece for orchestra
and chorus (think “Peter and the Wolf”) about a donkey who helped a
medieval monk compose a carol for a Christmas performance. My old
Pioneer Press newsroom colleague, Louis Porter, was the storyteller.
At another point, Brunelle, who is something of a connoisseur of
carols, conducted the chorus in singing the original version of one of
Mendelssohn’s most familiar melodies, known to most of us as “Hark! The
Herald Angels Sing.” This time, however, Brunelle substituted the
English translation of the original lyrics used by Mendelssohn in 1840
when he was writing not a carol, but a tribute to Johann Gutenberg, the
man who invented the printing press.
The three premieres were all Christmas carols, composed using more
or less conventional harmonies and embracing tender Advent themes.
Among them was the first American performance of Rutter’s “Carol of the
Magi,” a wonderfully moving piece for chorus and orchestra that opens
with an aching cello cadenza and then contrasts male voices singing a
text written by Rutter against wordless female harmony.
The two new world-premiere carols were composed for the annual
Christmas Carol contest started by VocalEssence some 12 years ago. Each
year the rules of the contest specify that entries must include a part
for a specific solo instrument. This year’s choice — the viola — almost
guaranteed that the carols would have the quality of moody tenderness.
Of the two winners, the carol by Michael J. Glasgow,
“Welcome the King,” was the more melancholy, at least at the start,
despite the celebratory subject of the nativity story. More anthem than
carol, it progressed through a beautiful, soaring transition to a
sublime conclusion. The other winner, by local composer Robert Sieving, was a new arrangement of sections from the Edward Caswall poem,
“See Amid the Winter’s Snow.” The richness of harmonies — a cappella in
the first stanza — marked this carol as a welcome addition to the
The “Welcome Christmas” concert will be repeated Friday, Saturday and Sunday at churches in Edina, Stillwater and Minneapolis.