Top 5 VocalEssence feats as choral powerhouse marks 50 years in Minneapolis

October 5, 2018

Its been 50 years since an ambitious young musician from Faribault, Minn., started his new job as organist and choirmaster at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis.

His name was Philip Brunelle. A half-century later, he still occupies the same position playing the organ for services, conducting the choir and overseeing the churchs thriving musical activities. That alone is cause for celebration, with a string of recent events marking Brunelles five decades of service to the Plymouth congregation.

But Brunelles church job is only part of the story. All along, he built a parallel career as a conductor of international standing, especially renowned for his work with the VocalEssence choral ensemble, formerly known as the church-based Plymouth Music Series. (The new name was adopted in 2002.)

VocalEssence celebrates its own half-century with a 50th-anniversary concert Sunday at the Ordway, showcasing music and performers from the choirs illustrious history. In honor of the occasion, weve also done some reflecting, pulling together five signature achievements in VocalEssence history moments that strike this critic as pivotal to the development of a uniquely vibrant choral organization.

1. Aaron Copland connection In 1969, during the first full season for Plymouth Music Series. Brunelle decided something major needed to happen. Why not call Americas greatest living composer and ask him to conduct the totally untried, untested Plymouth choir?

Brunelles chutzpah was immense, but it also paid off immediately. I knew that if you start something new, you have to start with a bang, he said in an interview last week. Aaron Copland was already due in Minneapolis for a February 1970 engagement with Minnesota Orchestra. Brunelle simply asked the composer to lead an additional concert with his fledging ensemble. And he said, Young man, no one has asked me to do my choral music. They always ask me to do my orchestral music. Of course Ill come.andthinsp;

Brunelle remembers Coplands visit as a time of happy, carefree music-making. He was just a dear, wonderful man very gentle, very self-deprecatory, Brunelle remembered. The singers adored him.

That concert titled In the Beginning, after one of Coplands choral pieces marked the start of a collaboration that peaked two decades later with the 1990 recording of Coplands opera The Tender Land. It also showed that Brunelles new choir meant business, setting the pace for ambitious composer collaborations.

2. Rediscovering Handel

Saul. Solomon. Esther. Jephtha. Judas Maccabaeus. Today, most followers of baroque music will instantly recognize the titles of these Handel oratorios, knowing they contain some of the composers finest choral music.

Back in the 1970s, though, things were different. Handels oratorios were virtually unknown to most concertgoers. Yet they topped Brunelles radar. I just thought people should know that there is more to Handel than Messiah,andthinsp; Brunelle said.

The result was a pioneering series of annual performances of Handel oratorios, cast exclusively with local performers.

We always had excellent soloists at Plymouth Church, so I knew that all the arias could be covered, Brunelle said. And I invited friends from the Minnesota Orchestra to be the players.

By more than a decade, these performances predated the larger classical worlds revived interest in Handel oratorios. And they typified a curiosity about discovering and performing unfamiliar repertoire.

3. The first commission

I would love to commission you, but I dont know how to do this.

The year was 1973, and Brunelle was speaking to composer Dominick Argento, his former teacher at the University of Minnesota. Brunelle was passionately interested in contemporary music. He wanted his Plymouth Music Series choir to sing more of it.

The problem? He was still a raw 28-year-old with no idea of how this commissioning business actually functioned.

The solution? Argento patiently talked the young man through the process. He told me to call his publisher to work out the financial arrangements, Brunelle remembered. I said I wanted a 30-minute piece thats what I figured I could afford.

When Argentos Jonah and the Whale came in at nearly double that length, Brunelle panicked. I said, Dominick, I dont have more money,andthinsp; Brunelle remembered. But he said, I just got inspired and kept writing. The fee stays the same.andthinsp;

Bringing Jonah to fruition taught me everything about how to do commissioning, Brunelle said. More than 100 commissions later, VocalEssence is still a tireless supporter of contemporary composers, especially those living in Minnesota.

4. Paul Bunyan moment

By 1987, nearly two decades into the VocalEssence story, Brunelles choir had established itself as a mainstay of the Minnesota music scene. What happened that year would catapult the group to international prominence.

It started with a visit from legendary English tenor Peter Pears, composer Benjamin Brittens partner, for a concert with the Plymouth Music Series.

At one point Peter asked me if I knew Brittens opera Paul Bunyan about the mythic American folk hero with Minnesota connections, Brunelle recalled. So I got thinking about Bunyan, and I thought weve got to do this piece.

The Minnesota groups semi-staged production was followed by a first-ever recording of the opera, captured at the Ordway Music Theater by the British Virgin Classics label. It won a prestigious U.K. Gramophone Award in 1988, bringing the Plymouth Music Series Minnesota (as the album cover put it) to global attention. Thirty years later, this is still the reference recording of the opera not to mention a symbol of VocalEssences ability to pull off innovative projects at an international level.

5. A Witness for black composers

It was a routine day, about 30 years ago. Brunelle was listening to the radio.

They played a Duke Ellington song, and said Thats our tribute to Black History Month. And I remember thinking, Thats it? One song? Why dont we know more about choral music by African-American composers?andthinsp;

Thus was the inspiration for Witness, a VocalEssence program celebrating the music and history of African-American composers.

From the outset, in 1991, the Witness series had a strong educational component, taking music to local schools for workshops and performances. It started out with one school, Brunelle remembered. We have 60 schools now.

Every year, Witness produces both a Young Peoples Concert and one for the general public (the 2018-19 concert comes Feb. 24 at Orchestra Hall). At these performances, VocalEssence has premiered new works by composers including Ysaandyuml;e Barnwell, Rosephanye Powell and Bobby McFerrin. We have been able to experience so many composers we would never have heard in the Twin Cities, Brunelle said.

With Witness, VocalEssence blazed a trail of inclusivity in classical music well before the industrywide mandate emerging today.

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at artsblain@gmail.com.

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