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Deep in the heart of Choral Country, VocalEssence turns 40

VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle, left, and Garrison Keillor are ready to party this Sunday at Orchestra Hall.
Photo by Mike Krivit
VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle, left, and Garrison Keillor are ready to party this Sunday at Orchestra Hall.

No doubt about it: Minnesota sings.

Last year, 125 choral groups applied for funds from the Minnesota State Arts Board and it’s likely that hundreds of other singing organizations — from church groups to weird motorcycle glee clubs — decided to sing without bothering to seek a state grant.

The music world, in fact, knows Minnesota as “Choral Country.” Probable reasons include historical links to Northern European countries — Brits, Germans, Scandinavians, Irish, etc. — that have strong vocal music traditions, plus an early history of relative isolation that fed a desire to create our own music. Moreover, choral singing is a social experience and it’s also the cheapest way to make music, since we all own built-in instruments in our throats.

All this serves as an introduction to the announcement of a birthday party for one of the most prominent choral organizations in the state — and probably the country.

On Sunday afternoon, VocalEssence kicks off its 40th season with a program that meets the definition of a birthday “bash.” Staged in Orchestra Hall, it includes an eclectic mish-mash of things: tap dancers, comedy routines, the University of Minnesota band, a gaggle of jazz and operatic soloists, and even a new work by Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus that uses a choral fanfare to tell people to turn off their cell phones.

Host for the party is humorist Garrison Keillor, host of “A Prairie Home Companion.” And the conductor is Philip Brunelle, the tireless — and ageless — impresario who founded the precursor of today’s VocalEssence back in 1969, when he was barely out of college. Brunelle was a guest performer on the first PHC show, and the men have collaborated on several projects over the years.

Here’s an audio clip from a segment of a skit with Keillor and the group performing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Today, VocalEssence is one of the largest choral operations in the country, with a full-time staff of 10, a paid professional ensemble of 32 singers and a choir of 100 volunteers whose singers still have to audition. Its staff includes two full-time education specialists and its list of recordings includes everything from bluegrass to a series of CDs produced by its ongoing “Witness” concerts dedicated to African-American music. This year, the organization is launching a new program on Mexican and Latino music called “Cantaré.”

Floating many a tune … and staying afloat
Over the years, VocalEssence has commissioned more than 120 new works and has given first performances or local premieres to countless examples of the world’s choral repertoire. And they’ve been able to stay afloat in the process.

“We may be the only arts organization that in its history has never had a deficit,” Brunelle said during a typically rapid-patter interview last week. “That’s something we’re proud of, though sometimes it’s been a struggle.”

In addition to abundant musical talent and a frenzied work ethic, I think Brunelle’s secret of success could be summarized in four words: He is not shy.

Thirty years ago, when the St. Paul Pioneer Press announced my appointment as the newspaper’s new classical music critic, Brunelle was the first member of the local arts community to call. At the time, he also had a dual post as music director of the Minnesota Opera and he was “delighted” that I was going to have the opportunity to publicize a new opera titled “The Jealous Cellist” by Eric Stokes of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Music.

And so it went. I was not completely surprised, therefore, when Brunelle related a story about the splashy way VocalEssence came into being.

Back in 1969, Brunelle was hired as organist and choirmaster at Plymouth Congregational Church, a big established church near downtown Minneapolis. Shortly after that, he talked church leaders into allowing him to start a community outreach program to promote choral music that was “beyond those 10 or 12 masterpieces we always hear.”

The idea, as Brunelle pitched it, was to have a modest season of maybe two choral concerts and two organ recitals. The outreach program, they decided, would be called the Plymouth Music Series and would not be a part of the church ministry.

But Brunelle was more ambitious than that. “I knew if I was going to get people’s attention, I needed a big bang,” he explained.

So the cheeky new church organist called Aaron Copland, a towering figure in American music, and invited him to Minneapolis to conduct a performance of his choral music. Copland, as Brunelle recalls it, was astonished by the invitation.

“He said, ‘Young man, I have never conducted any of my choral music. So tell me the date and I’ll be there.’ ”

I asked Brunelle to name some highlights of some of the seasons that followed that big Copland splash.

“Oh, there are many, but I suppose some stand way out,” he said. Here they are:

• When the group’s recording of Benjamin Britten‘s “Paul Bunyan” won an English version of the Grammy as the best opera recording of the year.

• When Jihan Sadat, widow of Anwar Sadat, came to the Twin Cities in 1986 to take the role of narrator in the world premiere of Libby Larsen’s oratorio, “Coming Forth in Today.”

• When VocalEssence gave the first American performance — in Swedish — of “Kristina,” an opera by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus that is based on Vilhelm Moberg’s “The Emigrants.”

• The big retrospective festivals, such as the three-week “Illuminating Bolcom” festival that took place last year that honored American composer William Bolcom. VocalEssence has also presented festivals for Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, and English composer Gerald Finzi.

Over the years, many of the concerts presented by VocalEssence have been rigorous experiences for both performers and audiences. The group seldom panders.

“Until now,” Brunelle said, laughing.

“Sunday’s concert is going to be fast-paced and it will have lots of wonderful humor, I think,” Brunelle said. “It’s going to be a real party.”

Sunday’s VocalEssence 40th Birthday Party starts at 4 p.m. at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. The concert benefits the organization’s Community Engagement educational programs. Tickets range from $20 to $40. To order, call 612-371-5656 or order online.

Hear more of VocalEssence:

From the “Hymn to Potatoes” CD: lyrics by Garrison Keillor, melody by Schubert.

A gospel tune arranged by Moses Hogan.

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