Review

Pioneer Press: Two Minnesota choirs blend in fine harmonic form in Apple Valley concert

When
two choirs converge, you never know what you’ll get. Will it be a fine
fit or a clash of sounds and styles? And then there’s the conductor
question: Who leads the combined forces of the two groups?

On
Sunday afternoon at Apple Valley’s Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran
Church, one such meeting of the voices occurred when Minneapolis’
VocalEssence Ensemble Singers and the Choral Arts Ensemble of Rochester
concluded a home-and-home series of concerts (one in Rochester, one in
the Twin Cities) by harmonizing remarkably well for a freshly assembled
choir.

And
the conductors — Vocal Essence’s Philip Brunelle and Choral Arts’
Michael Culloton — took turns on the podium before repeatedly pushing
one another aside on a finale of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,”
providing a light-hearted end to a concert with lots of intriguing
music, most of it of recent vintage.

Minnesota
is filled with exceptional choirs, but Choral Arts Ensemble is among
the few that seems to have followed the VocalEssence template, building
their repertoire around new works and sometimes commissioning them. One
such piece was among the highlights of the concert, a rich, reverent,
psalm-inspired work by young composer Kentaro Sato.

Brunelle
and the 30-voice VocalEssence Ensemble Singers responded with a set
that exposed their adventurous side. Julian Anderson’s “Beautiful
Valley of Eden” was an intriguing work that separated the choir into
four groups, spread them across the church’s lengthy stage, and sent
their phrases and harmonies careening off one another, often finding
unexpected alignments. And imaginative Eric Whitacre’s “Leonardo Dreams
of His Flying Machine” was an inspiring sonic journey with a finale
that sounded like floating on the wind.

When
the two choirs combined for the second half of the concert, their
voices immediately blended into a beautifully balanced whole on a
Mendelssohn hymn. But their harmonies really reached full flower on two
pieces by English composer Charles Stanford, the afternoon’s best
examples of the kind of lush, layered harmonies for which the Minnesota
choral tradition is known.

It
soothed listeners before Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo invigorated them
by unleashing a menagerie of metaphors on “Unicornus Captivatur,” the
closest thing to a centerpiece on this varied program.

Rob Hubbard can be reached at rhubbard@pioneerpress.com.