Photo credit VocalEssence (from another performance).
VocalEssence kicked off its three-day concert series celebrating the music of John Rutter on Friday night. Many filled the pews early to hear a discussion of the musical program and VocalEssence's upcoming 2014-2015 season.
One of the originally planned features of this concert was that Rutter himself (b. 1945) would conduct his music. Illness unfortunately caused him to be physically absent, but he was sonically present through the music and recorded voiceovers that introduced several of the pieces. The musical selections ranged from as early as 1974 to as recent as 2010 – a reminder that one of the most famous and beloved composers alive is still active and writing. The program varied stylistically from hymnody to jazz-inflected tunes to classical choral polyphony.
With Rutter absent, VocalEssence founder and artistic director Philip Brunelle ascended the podium to lead VocalEssence's Chorus and its smaller Ensemble Singers group – and, at times, the congregation as well. One of the more unusual features of the Friday and Sunday programs is that the audience is invited to join in singing several of the more familiar pieces of hymnody (Saturday's audience will be issued sheet music and be able to participate even more fully). For one of these better-known pieces, Rutter's classic arrangement of All Creatures of Our God and King, the effect seemed almost designed to give church attendees an inferiority complex about their parish's congregational singing. The combination of a 32-voice professional choir singing towards you from the front, another seventy or so trained singers at the back of the church, and a few hundred avid singers around you in the audience is something profound. (Organists might also be induced to jealousy by the trumpet stops let loose by organist Mark Sedio.)
The acoustic of Central Lutheran Church is a large space to fill, a challenge that mattered more for diction than the volume of sound. In general, stronger enunciation would have been appreciated, especially for ending consonants – while the amount employed was about right for the pews at the very front, just half a dozen rows in the audience members began to bury their faces in their programs to discern the words being sung. The subscriber seats were still a better place to hear the musical blend, but for a program that was mostly in English there was a great deal of attentive lyric reading. Hopefully this mechanic will be tweaked to suit the space more appropriately when the ensemble next returns to Central Lutheran.
A trio of works delivered by the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers provided several standout selections in the middle of the program. Five Childhood Lyrics had many audience members chuckling quietly and smiling; "Draw on, sweet night" from Birthday Madrigals was sweetly haunting. Carol of the Magi, a piece written just five years ago by Rutter for a children's cancer hospital in London, was delicately woven by Brunelle into a rippling, sensuous tapestry of sound. VocalEssence gave the American premiere of this piece in 2009 with their full chorus; the smaller ensemble used on Friday provides a very different but no less gratifying take on the same music. The lustrous cello line played by Sally Dorer over the organ was a special treat.
The pièce de résistance of the program was John Rutter's Requiem, which comprised the second half of the evening and employed the fullest musical forces. This was clearly the work for which things had been calibrated, with the dynamics and fullness of sound finely tuned for the space and the diction crisp and clear. Brunelle led the choir and instrumental ensemble through tapering, contouring, and coloring of the movements that crafted a splendid arc, from the heights of "Hosanna" in the Sanctus to the dramatically haunting "Man that is born of a woman..." in the Agnus Dei. The sublime delivery of Psalm 23 was especially illuminated by the musical traces of oboe and harp (Sarah Carmack and Rachel Brandwein, respectively), which danced in and around the choral lines.
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