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Choral Christmas concerts in full swing

If you ever needed evidence that Minnesota deserves its self-proclaimed title as “Choral Country,” now’s the time to find it.

Choral Christmas concerts are in full swing for the next few weeks, and I started out the season last Sunday by attending the annual “Welcome Christmas” performance by VocalEssence, which will be repeated three times this weekend. But it won’t be the only game in town, because the calendar is filled with singing. What follows is a short list of some of the week’s more noteworthy concerts.

But first, some words about the concert I heard Sunday. VocalEssence is one of the granddaddies of Christmas concertizing in these parts, and its program this year is certain to be one of the most convivial. The organization, propelled by the musically insatiable curiosity of its founder, Philip Brunelle, has thrived over the past four decades by convincing audiences that vocal music is not for the timid.

This year’s “Welcome Christmas” concert doesn’t abandon that mindset — the program features two world premieres and an American premiere — but it also embraces the holiday need for both levity and comfort. The concert paid respects to Felix Mendelssohn’s 200th birthday with several selections and also devoted half of the performance to works by John Rutter, the world’s preeminent composer and arranger of Christmas vocal music.

The program also had its lighthearted crowd-pleasers, including Rutter’s “Brother Heinrich’s Christmas,” a narrated piece for orchestra and chorus (think “Peter and the Wolf”) about a donkey who helped a medieval monk compose a carol for a Christmas performance. My old Pioneer Press newsroom colleague, Louis Porter, was the storyteller.

At another point, Brunelle, who is something of a connoisseur of carols, conducted the chorus in singing the original version of one of Mendelssohn’s most familiar melodies, known to most of us as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” This time, however, Brunelle substituted the English translation of the original lyrics used by Mendelssohn in 1840 when he was writing not a carol, but a tribute to Johann Gutenberg, the man who invented the printing press.

The three premieres were all Christmas carols, composed using more or less conventional harmonies and embracing tender Advent themes. Among them was the first American performance of Rutter’s “Carol of the Magi,” a wonderfully moving piece for chorus and orchestra that opens with an aching cello cadenza and then contrasts male voices singing a text written by Rutter against wordless female harmony.

The two new world-premiere carols were composed for the annual Christmas Carol contest started by VocalEssence some 12 years ago. Each year the rules of the contest specify that entries must include a part for a specific solo instrument. This year’s choice — the viola — almost guaranteed that the carols would have the quality of moody tenderness.

Of the two winners, the carol by Michael J. Glasgow, “Welcome the King,” was the more melancholy, at least at the start, despite the celebratory subject of the nativity story. More anthem than carol, it progressed through a beautiful, soaring transition to a sublime conclusion. The other winner, by local composer Robert Sieving, was a new arrangement of sections from the Edward Caswall poem, “See Amid the Winter’s Snow.” The richness of harmonies — a cappella in the first stanza — marked this carol as a welcome addition to the choral repertoire.

The “Welcome Christmas” concert will be repeated Friday, Saturday and Sunday at churches in Edina, Stillwater and Minneapolis. Go here for details.

Here are some other notable choral concerts this week:

Anonymous 4: The much-admired quartet of female vocalists (Marsha Genensky, Ruth Cunningham, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and Susan Hellauer) performs their newest holiday program, “The Cherry Tree,” at the Basilica of St. Mary today at 7:30 p.m. The title of the program comes from the miracle ballad of Joseph and Mary that dates from the beginning of the 15th century, but has versions that have inspired composers for hundreds of years. The vocalists perform music from sources ranging from medieval carols to early American composers like William Billings. For information, go here

Exultate Chamber Singers: The locally based group is performing Bach’s “Magnificat,” along with original carols by local composer Almon C. Bock and choral superstar Eric Whitacre. Concerts Friday, Saturday and Sunday are at churches in Plymouth, St. Paul and Minneapolis. Go here for details.

The National Lutheran Choir: The highlight of three concerts by the National Lutheran Choir is a redacted version of John Tavener’s “Ex Maria Virgine,” a major work for chorus and organ that has been rarely performed since its premiere in 2005. The choir will perform six of the work’s 10 movements. Also on the program will be seasonal music and audience-participation carols, along with poetry and scripture readings. All performances Friday and Saturday are in the Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis. Go here for details.

Kantorei Chamber Choir: The 40-member a cappella group presents its Christmas concert “Celebrating the Mystery,” Saturday and Sunday at churches in Golden Valley and St. Paul. Music by Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Kenneth Jennings, Carol Barnett, Elizabeth Poston, Daniel Pinkham and Max Reger are on the program. The choir is known for its precision and clear intonation. For details, go here.

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Comments (2)

Among the outstanding choral events this Christmas season, two choirs are certainly worthy of your readers' attention. I refer to The Singers Minnesota Choral Artists and The Rose Ensemble. They will be performing Christmas programs in the next two weeks. They both have a faithful following for good reason. They are skillfully directed and the quality of the vocalists is outstanding.

Not to mention Cantus in All is Calm, the true story of German and British soldiers declaring an unofficial cease-fire in 1914.