Music review: “You only turn 40 once” – Star Tribune Review by William Randall Beard

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With Garrison Keillor as MC, showman Philip Brunelle pulled out all of the stops to celebrate his choral group’s longevity.

By WILLIAM RANDALL BEARD, Special to the Star Tribune
Last update: September 16, 2008 – 6:43 AM

VocalEssence artistic director
Philip Brunelle is nothing if not a showman. And for the chorus’ 40th
anniversary celebration Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall, he pulled
out all the stops. From Dan Dressen and Vern Sutton singing Poulenc on
roller skates to the University of Minnesota Marching Band parading
through, this was an over-the-top extravaganza, a festive event worthy
of one of the area’s premier choruses.

Garrison Keillor played host and brought
his usual folksy charm to fêting Brunelle and the ensemble. The concert
got off to a tongue-in-cheek start, with the world premiere of a vocal
fanfare by Stephen Paulus, "Cell Phone TurnOff." It was a silly trifle,
but a musically accomplished one.

The most moving moments were Brunelle’s
reminiscences of highlights from the past four decades, with the chorus
performing short excerpts. There was the triumphant revival of Benjamin
Britten’s opera "Paul Bunyan" that led to a recording, and the
not-so-triumphant "Joan of Arc at the Stake" by Arthur Honegger,
scheduled (unsuccessfully) as Christmas counter-programming.

There was Maria Jette’s wonderful
performance of a Handel aria (to commemorate the 10 oratorios the
chorus performed in the early days), a chorus from Benny Andersson’s
very un-ABBA-like musical "Kristina" and a moving excerpt from "Coming
Forth Into Day," Libby Larsen’s collaboration with Jehan Sadat, widow
of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

The nostalgia left me melancholy. I kept
wishing that I could have been at all those earlier performances or
that I could hear them all again.

But the overall mood of the event was light
and celebratory. The comic highlight was Keillor’s re-creation of an
old "Prairie Home Companion" routine, "The Runaway Choir," by Paul
Gerike, which gave the Ensemble Singers a chance to sing everything
from "Copacabana" to "American Pie."

The jazz ensemble Moore by Four and dancer
James Sewell also performed. Brunelle has many friends who wanted to
share in the celebration.

VocalEssence has presented 119 world
premieres over its history, and this concert continued the tradition
with "O Joy!," Kitty Brazelton’s commercial yet very meaningful setting
of Psalm 77. Once again, VocalEssence has added a valuable new piece to
the repertoire.

This was quite a party. But for all the
spectacle, it ended quietly, with Eskil Hemberg’s "Thou Who Art Over
Us," with a text by Dag Hammarskjöld, demonstrating once again that
VocalEssence’s international reputation is well-deserved.

William Randall Beard is a Minneapolis writer.