Leading American choral conductor Philip Brunelle talks to Terry Grimley ahead of his choir’s visit to Birmingham.
As well as giving the world such pop luminaries as Bob Dylan and Prince, the northern state of Minnesota has a reputation throughout the United States for its tradition of choral singing.
The twin cities of Minneapolis/St Paul are said to boast around 300 choirs, ranging from the church and high school variety to ensembles of international quality. And right at the pinnacle of this choral scene is VocalEssence, which makes its Birmingham debut at the Town Hall next Sunday.
Like Birmingham’s own Ex Cathedra, VocalEssence is still run by its founding director and is currently in the midst of celebrations for its 40th anniversary, of which this five-concert English tour is part. Also like Ex Cathedra, the 130-member Vocal Essence has a choir-within-a choir, a 32-voice fully professional group called the Ensemble Singers which is representing the choir on this visit. Its members are required to re-audition annually to maintain the purity of its blended sound.
The tour, which links venues as different yet iconic in their contrasting ways as King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, was arranged through director Philip Brunelle’s personal contacts in the English choral world, including the CBSO’s chorus director Simon Halsey.
Brunelle is an anglophile whose efforts in promoting British music in the US brought him an honorary MBE in 2005. But next Sunday’s concert offers the Birmingham public a rare opportunity to hear expert interpretations of a distinctly American tradition, ranging from William Billings, a contemporary of George Washington, to Eric Whitacre, a former rock musician now in his late 30s whose huge popularity in America is beginning to be replicated here.
In between, the mix of original compositions and arrangements of folksongs and spirituals features such familiar names as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Foster.
Probably like many British music enthusiasts, I first registered Philip Brunelle’s name through his recording of Benjamin Britten’s early American opera, Paul Bunyan, with the Plymouth Music Series, released on the Virgin label in the 1980s. Bunyan is a mythical hero from Minnesota, but it took me a while to register that the Plymouth Music Series and VocalEssence are actually the same group, with a name change as recent as 2002.
Speaking on the telephone from Minneapolis last week, Brunelle explained that various factors led to the change.
“One of the biggest reasons we made the change is that one of the suburbs of Minneapolis is a town called Plymouth,” he said. “When this was started it was a lot smaller, and now it’s huge. Everyone was confused, thinking that we were in Plymouth, Minnesota.
Naturally, I found there was nothing I could tell Brunelle about the illustrious history of Birmingham Town Hall that he didn’t already know. In fact, he points out that he conducted the Minneapolis premiere of one of the most famous works associated with it – Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius: “It had never been done, and everyone was saying where has this lovely piece of music been?”
He recalls how he met Sir Adrian Boult and the great choral composer Herbert Howells through his friendship with the composer Malcolm Williamson.
“It was at a time when Boult was getting ready to do a performance of a piece by Vaughan Williams and we had a wonderful time together. The same with Howells – I remember he had pictures of Sir Charles Stanford and Sir Hubert Parry on the wall and he said they’ve gone but I’m still here!
“I always say that you never know if you don’t ask. I remember after Britten died writing a note to Peter Pears and saying would you come over and sing the five Canticles? He said I have never been asked to be in a performance of all five. In the end he sang three and coached the performances of the other two.
“The first year I started what was then Plymouth Music Series I called up Aaron Copland, who I didn’t know at all, and said why don’t you come to Minneapolis and conduct your choral music? He said I have never been asked to do that – tell me the date and I’ll cancel whatever I’m supposed to be doing.”
The programme for Sunday’s concert is impressively wide-ranging, including music by a native American composer, Brent Michael Davids, as well as the African American Nathaniel Dett.
“Dett wrote this beautiful setting of Ave Maria in about 1920, and I guarantee that if someone did not know they would not identify it as being written by a black composer. People tend to make suppositions, and I wanted to represent some of the African American composers to show that it’s not just spirituals.
“But obviously there are some wonderful, beautiful spirituals. The piece Witness which we’re doing is one of the great spirituals, and this arrangement is by Jack Halloran who is white and was an arranger for all sorts of groups. His arrangement is the best one out there.”
In addition to Eric Whitacre, other living American composers featured in the programme include Ned Rorem, Aaron Jay Kernis and Stephen Paulus. And there is a piece specially commissioned from William Bolcom for the tour – not a choral work this time, but an instrumental interlude for the choir’s resident pianist Charles Kemper called Knock Out Rag.
Next Tuesday VocalEssence will be performing at St John’s Smith Square in London on the day of President Obama’s inauguration, when the audience will be invited to join in the premiere of a new patriotic hymn with words by another Minnesota celebrity – and frequent VocalEssence collaborator – Garrison Keiller.