Pioneer Press: VocalEssence sings us into the Christmas season

By Rob Hubbard
Special to the Pioneer Press

Getting into the Christmas spirit was easy Saturday night. Outside the windows of the Colonial Church of Edina, big fluffy flakes wafted toward the ground, blanketing the spire of the very New England-esque structure and the rolling hills of the park across the street.

And, inside the church, the soft, sweet sound of French carols filled the sanctuary as VocalEssence presented the first of its annual “Welcome Christmas” concerts. Focusing upon great Gallic tunes such as “Noel Nouvelet” and “Cantique de Noel,” it was a program that had as much beauty and fuel for reflection as the Currier & Ives scene
outside. But it was also an opportunity to mix some new works in with the musical comfort food that so many of us crave at this time of year.

Conductor Philip Brunelle led groups both large and small – the VocalEssence Chorus and Ensemble Singers, respectively – augmenting their voices with a chamber orchestra and a collection of vocal soloists. But the most intriguing addition to the mix may have been English horn, the lower-voiced cousin of the oboe that was part of the
challenge for this year’s carol contest. Chicago’s James Kallembach and Minnetonka’s Robert Sieving created engaging works that used that double reed’s sound to evoke the sense of solitary contemplation that a winter’s night can inspire.

The concert’s first half consisted of a 1980 oratorio by St. Paul composer Stephen Paulus, “So Hallow’d is the Time.” Three decades ago, Paulus was fresh from his graduate studies with Dominick Argento at the University of Minnesota, and that composer’s influence could be heard in much of the piece. But an explosion of timpani halfway through announced that the young protege had found his voice, especially in his imaginative use of the orchestra.

After that piece’s olde English texts, French might seem like a breeze, but that lovely, lyrical language can be tough to sing well. However, the chorus and soloists – particularly soprano Laura Hynes Smith on a richly romantic “Cantique de Noel” – made both the diction and music bright and clear as moonlight on the snow.

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Who: VocalEssence Chorus and Ensemble Singers with conductor Philip Brunelle

What: “Welcome Christmas”

When and where: 4 p.m. Sunday, Plymouth Congregational Church,
1919 LaSalle Ave., Minneapolis; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Shepherd of the Valley
Lutheran Church, 12650 Johnny Cake Ridge Road, Apple Valley; 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Trinity Lutheran Church, 115 N. Fourth St., Stillwater

Tickets: $40-$10, available at 612-371-5656 or

Capsule: French music and English horn make for an intriguing concert.

Photo by Stephen Maturen for VocalEssence.