Pioneer Press (5/4/09): VocalEssence choir party a perfect pitch
By Rob Hubbard
Special to the Pioneer Press
is choral country. The state is overflowing with so many talented
choirs that it would take years for the average music lover to hear
them all at least once.
But there was an opportunity to catch up with eight of them at
once Sunday afternoon. In honor of its 40th anniversary, VocalEssence
hosted something of a choir party at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. In
addition to the VocalEssence Chorus and Ensemble Singers, six other
choirs each performed two tunes, one of them showing off a specialty of
that group, the other something originally premiered by VocalEssence.
The result was a splendid celebration of the region’s choral
traditions and talent. But, even though all the choirs amassed onstage
for the premiere of a new work by Dominick Argento, the quietest
moments of the concert proved most transporting. Delicacy and restraint
combined with rich harmonies to take listeners to those places you can
reach only through the power of the human voice.
For example, central Minnesota’s Kantorei drew listeners into a
mood of calm reflection with a prayer by Dag Hammerskjold, set to music
by Eskil Hemberg. And the group with the shortest history on the
program, the Singers, served up a reminder of the gifts of local
composer Stephen Paulus through a slice of his "Meditations of Li Po."
Inviting all of these choirs to perform set VocalEssence up to
be upstaged. And the National Lutheran Choir may have done that.
Charismatic conductor David Cherwien and his
sang a piece by Eric Whitacre that captured the essence of what makes
that composer’s music so marvelous … maybe more than anything
performed on VocalEssence’s recent all-Whitacre program. And the
National Lutheran Choir’s version of Moses Hogan’s "The Battle of
Jericho" demonstrated that it understand where gospel intersects with
the blues and that Lutherans can, indeed, get funky.
But the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers seized the spotlight with a
dark and deeply involving new work by Judith Bingham, featuring an
arresting solo by alto Krista Palmquist.
When the choirs combined for Argento’s "The Choirmaster’s
Burial," the pure power of this 500-voice group could have been
overwhelming had it not handled the work with such gentleness. When a
hymn, "Mount Ephraim," emerged from amid the tune and gathered
strength, it sparked an electricity eclipsed only by the singalong
finale of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."