MinnPost.com: Deep in heart of Choral Country, VocalEssence turns 40, by David Hawley
No doubt about it: Minnesota sings.
Last year, 125 choral groups applied for funds from the Minnesota State Arts Board
and it’s likely that hundreds of other singing organizations — from
church groups to weird motorcycle glee clubs — decided to sing without
bothering to seek a state grant.
The music world, in fact, knows
Minnesota as "Choral Country." Probable reasons include historical
links to Northern European countries — Brits, Germans, Scandinavians,
Irish, etc. — that have strong vocal music traditions, plus an early
history of relative isolation that fed a desire to create our own
music. Moreover, choral singing is a social experience and it’s also
the cheapest way to make music, since we all own built-in instruments
in our throats.
All this serves as an introduction to the
announcement of a birthday party for one of the most prominent choral
organizations in the state — and probably the country.
On Sunday afternoon, VocalEssence
kicks off its 40th season with a program that meets the definition of a
birthday "bash." Staged in Orchestra Hall, it includes an eclectic
mish-mash of things: tap dancers, comedy routines, the University of
Minnesota band, a gaggle of jazz and operatic soloists, and even a new
work by Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus that uses a choral fanfare to tell people to turn off their cell phones.
Host for the party is humorist Garrison Keillor, host of "A Prairie Home Companion." And the conductor is Philip Brunelle,
the tireless — and ageless — impresario who founded the precursor of
today’s VocalEssence back in 1969, when he was barely out of college.
Brunelle was a guest performer on the first PHC show, and the men have
collaborated on several projects over the years.
Today, VocalEssence is one of the largest
choral operations in the country, with a full-time staff of 10, a paid
professional ensemble of 32 singers and a choir of 100 volunteers whose
singers still have to audition. Its staff includes two full-time
education specialists and its list of recordings includes everything
from bluegrass to a series of CDs produced by its ongoing "Witness"
concerts dedicated to African-American music. This year, the
organization is launching a new program on Mexican and Latino music
Floating many a tune … and staying afloat
the years, VocalEssence has commissioned more than 120 new works and
has given first performances or local premieres to countless examples
of the world’s choral repertoire. And they’ve been able to stay afloat
in the process.
"We may be the only arts organization that in
its history has never had a deficit," Brunelle said during a typically
rapid-patter interview last week. "That’s something we’re proud of,
though sometimes it’s been a struggle."
In addition to abundant
musical talent and a frenzied work ethic, I think Brunelle’s secret of
success could be summarized in four words: He is not shy.
years ago, when the St. Paul Pioneer Press announced my appointment as
the newspaper’s new classical music critic, Brunelle was the first
member of the local arts community to call. At the time, he also had a
dual post as music director of the Minnesota Opera and he was "delighted" that I was going to have the opportunity to publicize a new opera titled "The Jealous Cellist" by Eric Stokes of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Music.
so it went. I was not completely surprised, therefore, when Brunelle
related a story about the splashy way VocalEssence came into being.
in 1969, Brunelle was hired as organist and choirmaster at Plymouth
Congregational Church, a big established church near downtown
Minneapolis. Shortly after that, he talked church leaders into allowing
him to start a community outreach program to promote choral music that
was "beyond those 10 or 12 masterpieces we always hear."
idea, as Brunelle pitched it, was to have a modest season of maybe two
choral concerts and two organ recitals. The outreach program, they
decided, would be called the Plymouth Music Series and would not be a
part of the church ministry.
But Brunelle was more ambitious than that. "I knew if I was going to get people’s attention, I needed a big bang," he explained.
So the cheeky new church organist called Aaron Copland,
a towering figure in American music, and invited him to Minneapolis to
conduct a performance of his choral music. Copland, as Brunelle recalls
it, was astonished by the invitation.
"He said, ‘Young man, I have never conducted any of my choral music. So tell me the date and I’ll be there.’ ”
I asked Brunelle to name some highlights of some of the seasons that followed that big Copland splash.
"Oh, there are many, but I suppose some stand way out," he said. Here they are:
• When the group’s recording of Benjamin Britten‘s "Paul Bunyan" won an English version of the Grammy as the best opera recording of the year.
When Jihan Sadat, widow of Anwar Sadat, came to the Twin Cities in 1986
to take the role of narrator in the world premiere of Libby Larsen’s
oratorio, "Coming Forth in Today."
• When VocalEssence gave the
first American performance — in Swedish — of "Kristina," an opera by
ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus that is based on Vilhelm Moberg’s "The Emigrants."
The big retrospective festivals, such as the three-week "Illuminating
Bolcom" festival that took place last year that honored American
composer William Bolcom.
VocalEssence has also presented festivals for Finnish composer
Einojuhani Rautavaara, Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, and English
composer Gerald Finzi.
Over the years, many of the concerts
presented by VocalEssence have been rigorous experiences for both
performers and audiences. The group seldom panders.
"Until now," Brunelle said, laughing.
concert is going to be fast-paced and it will have lots of wonderful
humor, I think," Brunelle said. "It’s going to be a real party."