For its 40th birthday bash, VocalEssence still looks ahead


By David Hawley
Special to the Pioneer Press
Article Last Updated: 09/14/2008 11:12:26 PM CDT

 

VocalEssence kicked off its 40th season Sunday with a bash at Orchestra Hall that only the most soulless curmudgeon could find dissatisfying.

As much a birthday party as a concert, it had a little of everything: tenors on roller skates, clattering tap dancers, an original choral work extolling the audience to turn off those cell phones, comic monologues by Garrison Keillor, a once-banned randy aria from a Handel opera and a clangorous appearance by the University of Minnesota Marching Band, complete with its crack flag squad.

There was some perfectly lovely music, too.

Philip Brunelle was barely out of college when he founded VocalEssence — then known as the Plymouth Music Series — in 1969. In his first season, then-24-year-old Brunelle talked Aaron Copland into coming to Minnesota to conduct a concert of his vocal music.

The indefatigable Brunelle has been pushing the envelope ever since. He now heads one of the biggest choral organizations in the country, with 132 singers, a full-time administrative and educational staff and an impressive résumé of recordings and commissions.

VocalEssence champions new vocal work and performances of neglected music from the past. Nothing is too big or too obscure — and audiences are often as mystified as they are charmed. The organization's courageous programming, in fact, reflects Brunelle's talent to make audiences appreciate programs while they sometimes are enduring them. It's a rare and wonderful gift, and the Twin Cities is better for it.

Sunday's concert, for the most part, was a compendium of highlights that served to display the astonishing breadth of the organization's activities — from comedy routines on "A Prairie Home Companion" to seldom-heard works such as Benjamin Britten's "Paul Bunyan" opera and local composer Libby Larsen's monumental oratorio "Coming Forth Into Day."

A major highlight of the program was the organization's 120th commissioned work: a choral setting of Psalm 77 titled "O Joy!" by Kitty Brazelton, a New England composer who straddles the rock-punk-experimental genres. It's a lovely piece that blends foursquare harmonic writing with antiphonal elements and then suddenly shifts into a rock ballad kind of rhythm before returning to an exuberant conclusion.

The long list of performers involved in the gala included soprano Maria Jette, tenors Vern Sutton and Dan Dressen — all longtime Brunelle collaborators — tap dancers Kaleena Miller and Ricci Milan, dancer/choreographer James Sewell and the Moore by Four jazz vocal group led by Sanford Moore.

If there was a retrospective element to the concert, it was downplayed. Always pushing forward, Brunelle ended the evening in characteristic fashion by urging the audience to attend the next VocalEssence event: a performance Oct. 17 at the Cathedral of St. Paul that features the seldom-heard "Te Deum" by Hector Berlioz.

The massive work requires a big choir and a full orchestra with 12 harps. "We'll have 'em," Brunelle promised.