VocalEssence review: Musicians give story of tragic loss a powerful, immense, treatment
By Rob Hubbard
Anyone who has lost a child
knows that the pain and grief are too overwhelming for words or music.
So English composer Jonathan Dove took on an immense challenge in
accepting a commission to write an elegiac oratorio for a 19-year-old
drowning victim. He could have gone small with it, staying away from the
enormity of the emotional turmoil of the loss and creating something
quiet and intimate. Instead, he went big.
“There Was a Child” is a massive work that requires a very large
choir, a children’s chorus, two vocal soloists and a chamber orchestra,
so 314 musicians squeezed onto the temporary stage at Minneapolis’
Central Lutheran Church on Sunday afternoon, the expansive sanctuary’s
pews similarly packed with patrons.
The U.S. premiere of Dove’s work was as monumental as its subject
matter, and the musicians of VocalEssence gave it a powerful
performance at their season-opening concert. The poetry that Dove chose
to set to music eloquently expressed the delights of childhood, and his
music movingly conveyed the pain left behind by an early death.
The poets chosen were unimpeachable, in that almost all were
literary giants esteemed for insightfully bringing big issues down to
human scale, William Wordsworth, John Keats and Walt Whitman among them.
There were times when the music seemed too big for the sentiment
expressed in the words — tenors, trombones and timpanis bellowing and
booming as simple scenes were described — but all was forgiven when the
choral textures became particularly sumptuous or when soprano Maria
Jette overlaid high, ethereal lines atop them.
Not all the music and lyrics were an ideal match — a
Stravinsky-esque urgency didn’t feel right for Emily Dickinson — but
much of it was, like the pattered, percussive Keats, a Wordsworth
skating party that grew dark and menacing, and the wistful Whitman that
concluded the concert. It was an enormous undertaking, and conductor
Philip Brunelle and the masses of musicians from VocalEssence, the St.
Olaf Choir and Northfield Youth Choirs deserve congratulations for
executing it so expertly.
Also sung splendidly was “Glorious Majesty,” a new piece by Aaron
Jay Kernis given its world premiere to open the concert. It’s a lovely
setting of a psalm, and the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers made it
transporting, thanks to smoothly balanced ensemble work and layers of
As fate would have it, the closest on-street parking space I
could find was right outside the new version of Orchestra Hall. This
concert was to be the first classical presentation at that renovated
venue, but the freelance musicians employed by VocalEssence are part of
the same union as the locked-out Minnesota Orchestra musicians, so the
concert was moved.
From walking around and gazing in, I can tell you that it’s a
nice-looking building with white marble floors and a far more open and
airy feel. But when it will ever host a concert remains to be seen. I
heaved a sigh and headed home with Dove’s piece in my head, thinking
about losses of varying degrees.
Rob Hubbard can be reached at email@example.com.