Pioneer Press: VocalEssence’s best of Minnesota is really its greatest hits

By Rob Hubbard
Special to the Pioneer Press
Updated: 11/06/2011 10:05:41 PM CST

When last we heard from VocalEssence, the Minneapolis-based choral organization was pulling out all the stops for a program of almost overwhelming heft, one on which several choirs and a large orchestra performed large-scale works inspired by mythology, religion and American presidents.

So perhaps something a little lighter was in order for a follow-up. And that’s what the 31-voice VocalEssence Ensemble Singers delivered on Sunday afternoon at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater. Capping a Minnesota tour that took the group northeastward up Minnesota Highway 23 from Luverne to Duluth, the exceptionally talented chamber choir offered a “best of Minnesota” collection that could just as easily have been called “VocalEssence’s Greatest Hits.”

That’s because much of the repertoire performed had been part of past concerts. But what could have seemed stylistically scattershot was instead a pretty satisfying tasting menu of Minnesota musical morsels, many rooted in the varied cultures of immigrants who settled the state, others contemporary works by Minnesota composers. There was no real main course at this feast, just a lot of enjoyable appetizers that hit the spot.

That’s primarily because conductor Philip Brunelle and the choir did such a nice job of mixing beauty with frivolity, bringing a sweet, sad softness to some, engaging in straight-faced silliness on others. In the former camp were works by local composers Stephen Paulus (“The Day is Done”) and Libby Larsen (“Beautiful Star”), both of which evoked a sense of restfulness and renewal. And Brent Michael Davids’ “Zuni Sunrise Song” provided entree into a fascinating sound world, inspired by traditional American Indian music and twittering with simulated birdsong.

But some memorable performances came when the Minnesota-centric theme was set aside for something transporting from California’s Eric Whitacre and touching from New York’s Chris deBlasio.

Some humor came from Finland via Jaakko Mantyjarvi’s jaunty “El Hambo,” but the bulk of it arrived via a “North Star Hit Parade” medley put together by arranger Paul Gerike. It interspersed commercial jingles with bits of Bobby Vee, the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme song and the “Minnesota Rouser.” And no one present likely had heard anything quite like a choral version of “Funky Town” by Lipps Inc.

It was a concert designed to showcase Minnesota but ended up being more of a forum for the voices and versatility of VocalEssence.

Rob Hubbard can be reached at