Music review: You only turn 40 once

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune
VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle

With Garrison Keillor as MC, showman Philip Brunelle pulled out all of the stops to celebrate his choral group's longevity.

Last update: September 16, 2008 - 6:43 AM

VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle is nothing if not a showman. And for the chorus' 40th anniversary celebration Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall, he pulled out all the stops. From Dan Dressen and Vern Sutton singing Poulenc on roller skates to the University of Minnesota Marching Band parading through, this was an over-the-top extravaganza, a festive event worthy of one of the area's premier choruses.

Garrison Keillor played host and brought his usual folksy charm to fêting Brunelle and the ensemble. The concert got off to a tongue-in-cheek start, with the world premiere of a vocal fanfare by Stephen Paulus, "Cell Phone TurnOff." It was a silly trifle, but a musically accomplished one.

The most moving moments were Brunelle's reminiscences of highlights from the past four decades, with the chorus performing short excerpts. There was the triumphant revival of Benjamin Britten's opera "Paul Bunyan" that led to a recording, and the not-so-triumphant "Joan of Arc at the Stake" by Arthur Honegger, scheduled (unsuccessfully) as Christmas counter-programming.

There was Maria Jette's wonderful performance of a Handel aria (to commemorate the 10 oratorios the chorus performed in the early days), a chorus from Benny Andersson's very un-ABBA-like musical "Kristina" and a moving excerpt from "Coming Forth Into Day," Libby Larsen's collaboration with Jehan Sadat, widow of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

The nostalgia left me melancholy. I kept wishing that I could have been at all those earlier performances or that I could hear them all again.

But the overall mood of the event was light and celebratory. The comic highlight was Keillor's re-creation of an old "Prairie Home Companion" routine, "The Runaway Choir," by Paul Gerike, which gave the Ensemble Singers a chance to sing everything from "Copacabana" to "American Pie."

The jazz ensemble Moore by Four and dancer James Sewell also performed. Brunelle has many friends who wanted to share in the celebration.

VocalEssence has presented 119 world premieres over its history, and this concert continued the tradition with "O Joy!," Kitty Brazelton's commercial yet very meaningful setting of Psalm 77. Once again, VocalEssence has added a valuable new piece to the repertoire.

This was quite a party. But for all the spectacle, it ended quietly, with Eskil Hemberg's "Thou Who Art Over Us," with a text by Dag Hammarskjöld, demonstrating once again that VocalEssence's international reputation is well-deserved.

William Randall Beard is a Minneapolis writer.