Review

VocalEssence Ensemble Singers at Birmingham Town Hall

Birmingham Post
Jan 20 2009
By Terry Grimley

ON
the second date of its English tour Minneapolis’s outstanding
professional choir drew around 150 people to its wide-ranging programme
of American choral music.

But disappointing numbers could not
detract from the enjoyment of those wise enough to select this
extremely pleasant way of spending a cold winter’s afternoon.

The 32-voice ensemble, the core of a larger 130-strong choir, has a superbly blended sound.

It
instantly made itself at home in this historic venue with the rousing O
Praise the Lord of Heaven by William Billings, a contemporary of George
Washington.

The programme, introduced as well as selected by
conductor Philip Brunelle, featured three of Copland’s Old American
Songs including the famous Simple Gifts, but also music by less
familiar living composers like Ned Rorem and St Paul-based Stephen
Paulus.

The hugely popular Eric Whitacre, whose music is
starting to become familiar here, was represented by two pieces showing
contrasting aspects of his style. Water Night is Whitacre in relatively
simple mode, working with heavily stacked blocks of chords, while
Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine is a theatrical novelty parodying
Monteverdi in its extravagance and novel vocal effects.

A
different aspect of the American experience was revealed in Native
American Suite by the Mohican composer Brent Michael Davids, with its
use of four “bird roars” (actually more twitter than roar), and apart
from the various spiritual arrangements there were contrasting pieces
from African American composers Nathaniel Dett (a European-style Ave
Maria from the 1920s) and Rollo Dilworth

Aaron Jay Kernis’s
whirlingly rhythmic I Cannot Dance, O Lord represented the more than
140 new pieces commissioned by the choir over its lifetime.

William Bolcom’s Knock-out Rag, specially commissioned for this tour, showcased piano accompanist Charles Kemper.

This
wonderfully anachronistic squib could as easily have been titled Sore
Knuckle Rag from all the knocking on wood it demands from the performer.