By Rob Hubbard
Special to the Pioneer Press
It seems that everybody’s swinging this holiday season. There are opportunities to hear jazzed-up holiday tunes all over the Twin Cities area this month. Heck, even the Minnesota Orchestra spent the first week of December doing Duke Ellington. And now the area’s most reliable group for bringing you contemporary choral works, VocalEssence, is spending much of its annual “Welcome Christmas” concerts weaving its harmonies atop a blanket of brassy big-band sounds.
It’s a welcome development if everyone delivers something as enjoyable as the version of Nils Lindberg’s “A Christmas Cantata” that VocalEssence offered at Apple Valley’s Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church on Saturday evening. Some of the Twin Cities’ top jazz musicians joined VocalEssence for an interpretation both fiery and cool, one full of great solos by both singers and instrumentalists. It was the centerpiece of a brass-flavored night, and it provided an early climax to the concert.
Not to take anything away from the winners of VocalEssence’s annual carol contest, which were premiered Saturday. Pianist Laura Caviani has been a staple of the local jazz scene for years, and she’s crafted a choral version of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” that allows trumpeter Martin Hodel to create an atmosphere both celebratory and sizzling. And Josh Bauder’s “Sleep Softly, Lullaby” was an ideal blend of thick choral harmonies and another swing-centric Hodel solo.
But the program eventually felt a bit upside down, in that Swedish composer Lindberg’s cantata closed the concert’s first half when it probably should have been the evening’s grand finale. So adrenalin-inducing were some of Lindberg’s takes on carols and Christmas songs—and so admirable the playing by the 19-piece big band assembled for the occasion— that the collection of contemporary fare on the concert’s second half felt a bit like having appetizers after dinner.
Granted, some of these musical small plates were quite tasty. In addition to Caviani and Bauder’s engaging premieres, there was Gwyneth Walker’s very interesting “Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head,” for which Neal Bolter sent sonorous French horn lines from the hallway outside the sanctuary. And it was a great idea to open the concert with 17th-century composer Samuel Scheidt’s work for dueling choirs, “In Dulci Jubilo,” conductors Philip Brunelle and G. Phillip Shoultz one-upping one another from opposite sides of the stage, Brunelle a bouncing live wire, Shoultz all grace and smoothness.
And, if you want to add your voice to a first-rate choir, you’re invited to sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Deck the Halls” and the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s oratorio, “Messiah.” Yet you’ll be hard-pressed to summon up as much energy as suffuses Lindberg’s takes on “Ding Dong, Merrily on High,” “The Sussex Carol” and soprano JoAnna Swantek’s beautiful wordless vocalise, which hearkened back to the kind of soaring singing that Lindberg’s bandmate, Alice Babs, used to deliver. It made me nostalgic for the late Leigh Kamman’s radio show, “The Jazz Image,” for which those dreamy Babs flights often served as theme music.
Rob Hubbard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who: The VocalEssence Chorus, Ensemble Singers and Big Band with conductors Philip Brunelle and G. Phillip Shoultz III
What: “Welcome Christmas”
When and where: 4 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 13, Plymouth Congregational Church, 1900 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; 8 p.m. Friday, St. Bartholomew Catholic Faith Community, 630 Wayzata Blvd. E., Wayzata; 8 p.m. Saturday, Roseville Lutheran Church, 1215 W. Roselawn Ave., Roseville
Tickets: $40-$10, available at 612-371-5656 or vocalessence.org
Capsule: Choir and big band? Turns out it’s a great fit.