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S & H International Concert Review

VocalEssence, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 18, 2004 (BH)

Aaron Jay Kernis: Music is a Gift (2004, world premiere)
Dominick Argento: To God (1994)
Kurt Weill: Tchaikovsky (from Lady in the Dark)
Benny Andersson: De Flyendes Kör (Flight, from Kristina från Duvemåla)
Randall Davidson: Song of the Prodigal Sonís Brother (from The History of Evil)
Traditional: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (arr. Dale Adelmann, 1988)
Aaron Copland: Stomp Your Foot (from The Tender Land)
Steve Heitzig: Nobel Symphony (2001)

VocalEssence Chorus
Minnesota Boychoir, Mark Johnson, director

Vern Sutton, tenor
Lisa Drew, mezzo soprano
Michael Jorgensen, baritone
Gustavus Adolphus College Symphony Orchestra, Warren Friesen, director

Interactive computer-generated visual interpretation created by Minneapolis College of Art + Design

Piotr Szyhalski, Project Director

Philip Brunelle, conductor

If, after all, men cannot always make history have a meaning, they can always act so that their own lives have one." Ė Albert Camus, quoted in Steve Heitzegís Nobel Symphony

As my sister and I prowled through Minneapolisí Orchestra Hall lobby before the afternoon got underway, we found ourselves in front of a large photographic grid about eight feet square, with 128 small wooden blocks, each corresponding to a measure in the Peace section of Steve Heitzegís impressive Nobel Symphony. The audience was invited to pick up and place these at random on the display, and then the resulting pattern would be used to order the sequence of visuals in the work.

Originally premiered in 2001, Heitzegís massive opus was augmented this time by state-of-the-art graphics created by students at the Minneapolis College of Art + Design, impressively directed by Piotr Szyhalski and projected on a huge screen above the chorus. Each of the symphonyís six sections were introduced by vertical lines oscillating back and forth, leaving words in their wake, and interspersed with images of wood being sawed, shaped, and sanded to construct a chair, reflecting a poignant recurring sentence by Pablo Neruda, "Peace begins in a single chair."

Heitzeg, who used a simple descending scale to plaintive effect in his choral piece Little Tree, here employs more complex language with debts to Bartók, Barber and Stravinsky, all married to powerful texts by Nobel Prize winners Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Dag Hammarskjöld, Rigoberta Menchú, Nelson Mandela, Pablo Neruda, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus among others. Near the end of the work, Mandelaís decisive words "I was not born with a hunger to be free; I was born free" had the VocalEssence singers soaring in a fierce, almost barbaric declamation. The excellent percussion section deserved its own ovation for the second section alone, called Physics, which deploys unusually diverse effects, including rocks tapped together and popped bubble wrap (plastic packing material, for non-American readers). In addition to world instruments (such as djembe and sisal rattles) and natural ones (gourds and fallen olive tree branches), the array also included "alternative instruments" such as aluminum foil, chopsticks, hardbound books, metal tablespoons, empty metal soup cans, a plowshare and prosthetic leg limbs.

At the close, when the images onscreen show a fully completed chair, the room darkened completely but for a solitary pool of light on the stage, where Charles Lazarusí gleaming trumpet delivered the final somewhat sorrowful Postlude for the Rights of All. Lisa Drew, whom I heard last season in the stunning Sandström High Mass, was once again in luminous form, and especially moving in the section titled Chaconne for Healing. Baritone Michael Jorgensen added a special poignancy in the section titled Economics: To have and have not, his voice blending beautifully with the excellent Minnesota Boychoir. Conductor Philip Brunelle brought out decisive, often lyrical work from the young players of Gustavus Adolphus College, often playing with a maturity and professionalism that seemed far beyond their years.

At the conclusion, the audience pretty much rose to its feet as one, knowing that it had heard "something worthwhile" but perhaps not able to quantify exactly what that something might be. A woman next to me murmured, "Oh my," obviously moved, and another with whom I spoke at intermission had tears in her eyes. Perhaps some of the emotional impact of Heitzegís work rests on the realization that solutions to its sprawling issues seem despairingly far in the distance.

The first half of the concert was an all-over-the-map survey of some of VocalEssenceís "greatest hits" over the last 35 years, but the afternoon opened with a glowing new fanfare by Aaron Jay Kernis, Music is a Gift, written for the ensemble with moving lines by Philip Littell: "And where is music? Everywhere. In blood. The beating of my heart. A bird." Kernis set these texts with great sensitivity, making the most of VocalEssenceís refined sound. Equally appealing was Argentoís To God, performed by the groupís Ensemble Singers and intended as a tribute to one of Brunelleís former assistants who died. The piece ends with a long, softly held chord in the chorus, while a solitary trumpet melody (beautifully done by Lazarus) depicts the departed woman.

With music by Randall Davidson and a libretto by Garrison Keillor, "Song of the Prodigal Sonís Brother" from The History of Evil might seem an odd choice for a choral group, and frankly as it began I thought its parody of "good olí boy" humor was going to be a bit tiresome, at least in this context. But the piece quickly ignited when the men of VocalEssence charged in hilariously with the choral refrain, in wry counterpoint to the three excellent soloists: James Bohn, Ryan French and Dan Dressen. Kurt Weillís "Tchaikovsky," with the veteran Vern Sutton, was immaculately sung but seemed perhaps a bit lightweight in comparison with some of the other works on the program, although it did provide a brief, humorous break from all the drama.

The singers did a beautiful job with Benny Anderssonís piece, as dark and stoic as a Russian folk song, its somber text dealing with an 1862 Sioux Indian uprising in Minnesota, and one of the highlights of the entire day was Dale Adelmannís stunningly moody arrangement of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," anchored by Steve Burgerís mellow baritone. Aaron Coplandís "Stomp Your Feet," a rousing barn dance from The Tender Land, opened with an attention-getting clarion from the groupís rock-solid bass section, and the precision of the group swept up the audience to end the first half on a very high artistic plain.

The Minnesota area is dotted with outstanding choral groups, and in this crowded arena, Philip Brunelleís consistent vision in exploring both the familiar and the unknown is one of the high water marks. Speakers during the evening (including R.T. Rybak, Mayor of Minneapolis and Dr. Anton Armstrong, director of the famous St. Olaf Choir) lauded Brunelle over and over for his work on many fronts, such as his longstanding commitment to African American composers through the Witness series of concerts and recordings. This afternoon was taped for later broadcast by Minnesota Public Radio, and is well worth seeking out for many reasons.

Bruce Hodges

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