VocalEssence at 45: Celebrating a rich heritage

At the start of his 45th year as artistic director of VocalEssence, Philip Brunelle shows no signs of slowing down.

“Choral music is just a great way to express yourself and there are thousands upon thousands of choral pieces out there – I will never run out of music to do,” said Brunelle in a phone interview this afternoon. “So that’s why, although I’m at my 45th year, I can easily see how I can get to the 90th and still come up with new things to say.”

Brunelle says in some sense VocalEssence’s 45th season is like all the seasons that have come before it, in that it’s a celebration of Minnesota’s rich choral heritage.

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Philip Brunelle

Photo by Ann Marsden

The season begins with a joint performance with St. Olaf Choir in October, and will feature the world premiere of Jonathan Dove‘s “There Was A Child.” Brunelle says Dove is exceptionally talented at writing for the human voice.

“Some people would write for the voice and it sounds like a tuba – he just makes music that sings,” attests Brunelle. “And when I saw the text… it was commissioned by a family in memory of their son who had died, and they wanted something that was inspiring, that talked about the importance of life – so he’s taken all sorts of different poets to create a multi movement piece. I guarantee the audience is going to be moved by the way he’s put this together.”

The season also includes a cabaret featuring local talents Greta Oglesby, Simone Perrin, Dieter Bierbrauer and Bradley Greenwald, and will highlight music that the performers particularly love to sing.

Brunelle says this year’s Christmas production will serve as a simultaneous celebration of Mexican culture and a tribute to Dave Brubeck, centering around Brubeck’s piece “La Fiesta de la Posada.”

“Brubeck grew up in a California town that was mostly Mexican,” Brunelle explained, “and he loved the rhythm and melodies. When we did it before we did it with orchestra, but Brubeck really wanted it with a mariachi band, so that’s how we’re going to do it this time. Dan Chouinard will play the piano part that Brubeck originally performed.”

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Melanie DeMore

Photo courtesy VocalEssence

Probably the most unusual concert of the season, according to Brunelle, is this year’s Witness program, “Stomp and Sing.”

“There is this group of African-Americans that live on these islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia called the Gullah. The Gullah people never went on the mainland; they stayed on these islands and kept their own identity. So when they sing spirituals it’s very different from what you hear on the mainland. In Africa they would have used drums, but the Gullah use these poles that they stomp to keep the rhythm, and they create a mesmerizing sound.”

Melanie DeMore, who describes herself as a “vocal activist,” will lead the performance.

“She’s not a first alto, she’s not a second – she’s a fourth alto, she’s like a BASS,” exclaimed Brunelle. “She’s amazing and I guarantee the audience will all be on their feet clapping and stomping with her.”

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Composer John Rutter

Photo courtesy VocalEssence

In March VocalEssence will host British composer John Rutter, who recently penned the anthem for the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. It will be his first time back with the ensemble in ten years.

“John Rutter is the most performed choral composer from England in the USA – not just at Christmas but all throughout the year,” said Brunelle. “Anybody who has sung in a choir has sung John Rutter’s music.”

The concert will be split between John Rutter’s own works and music by his favorite romantic composers.

The 45th season ends in April with a concert celebrating the work of college choirs, specifically those of Luther, Gustavus Adolfus, St. Thomas and Bethel colleges. They’ll perform Tchaikovsky’s The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

“Listeners who go to concerts all know Tchaikovsky from a symphony or the Nutcracker Suite – they don’t associate him with choral music,” said Brunelle. “And it’s because we always want to open those windows and stretch folks, I thought this is a great time for people to know that Tchaikovsky wrote some beautiful choral music. We’ll have almost 400 singers combined and with Tchaikovsky, the more singers, the better.”

You can find out all the details of VocalEssence’s 45th season here.