Thursday, July 18, 2019
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Minnesota's choral tradition alive and well

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The VocalEssence Ensemble Singers are the professional core of the larger 120-voice VocalEssence Chorus. (Photo by Brian Scott Holman, courtesy of VocalEssence)
Minnesota has often been called the choral center of the U.S. The state is filled not only with church and school choirs, but also professional choirs with reputations that extend beyond Minnesota's borders. This is a busy time for many of those choirs as they get ready for their season-opening concerts this month. But missing for the second year is one of the best-known choruses in the state.

St. Paul, Minn. — As a new season gets underway, the Twin Cities choral community has had a full year to adjust to the absence of the Dale Warland Singers. They've just released a new CD, "Harvest Home," but Warland disbanded his group last year to concentrate on teaching, guest conducting and composing.

Over the course of 31 seasons, The Dale Warland Singers helped further Minnesota's reputation as a choir capital and won the Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence the first year it was given out. The award was subsequently won by two other professional choirs from the Twin Cities, VocalEssence and the Rose Ensemble.

Warland says Minnesota is such a fertile ground for choral music because it's valued here.

"Choral music is a very important part of our spiritual and cultural life," Warland says. "It's not just recreation. It's the spirit and the commitment to choral singing that is the most important thing about the Minnesota tradition."

Kathy Saltzman Romey is the director of Choral Activities at the University of Minnesota and conducts the Minnesota Chorale. She says Dale Warland was a pioneer in this community, and his organization served a model for other choirs. She says Warland's commitment to new music and his group's unique clarity and blend was something for others to emulate.

"I do think that Dale was very gracious about passing the torch on to new organizations," Romey says. "I think that he really felt strongly about encouraging younger organizations to step up and take this tradition, and carry it on in their own way."

One professional choral group that's been around even longer than the Dale Warland Singers is VocalEssence, which conductor Philip Brunelle founded 37 seasons ago. Twin Cities composer Stephen Paulus has written music for both groups. He says Philip Brunelle is a gifted programmer, and is usually three steps ahead of everyone else.

"He'd commission a piece, and by the time you'd finish the work he'd already scheduled a performance at the Kennedy Center, one in Belgium and one in Stockholm," Paulus says. "He'd also have a recording of the work featured on some radio show. That's always very exciting."

Stephen Paulus says he appreciates having a champion of his music like Philip Brunelle in the community. Brunelle says that's part of VocalEssence's mission of performing new music along with seldom-heard works.

It's not easy to win an audience with new music, but in his 37 years leading the group Brunelle says he's found an approach that works.

"First of all, you don't apologize," Brunelle says. "You don't tell audiences that you have to do something contemporary in order to get a grant. Personally, if I don't like a piece there's no way I can conduct it. I really have to believe in what I'm doing."

Brunelle says with so many different choral groups in Minnesota competing for an audience, they each need to have their own niche. The Rose Ensemble, for example, focuses on early music. Cantus performs music for male voices.

One of the newest professional choirs in the Twin Cities is a group simply called The Singers. Now in their second season, The Singers have a repertoire of music from around the world and from all time periods. The bulk of the group is made up of former members of the Dale Warland Singers.

Conductor Matthew Culloton sang bass with the Warland Singers and was the group's music advisor, but he stresses that the new group is not The Dale Warland Singers by another name.

"For us, the challenge is to find what we want to keep from Dale, but find our own direction," Culloton says. "One of the key differences is that we've broadened the repertoire a little bit, and highlight everything from the old to the new."

Culloton says he wants The Singers to bring something new to the Twin Cities choral scene. VocalEssence's Philip Brunelle says he welcomes the competition.

"Competition is a good thing. It makes everyone work harder," says Brunelle. "In the orchestra world, I always thought the Minnesota Orchestra jumped a notch when the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra came around. I think that in the choral world, competition makes all of us work just that little bit harder to do our very best."

VocalEssence opens its new season this month, as do The Singers and the Rose Ensemble. After several weeks of touring, the male choir Cantus returns to Minnesota for its first home concerts of the season. Cantus Artistic Director Erick Lichte says if the past is any guide, all of these concerts will be well-attended.

"Cantus had a concert last spring. That same weekend VocalEssence and the Rose Ensemble also had concerts, and the Concordia Choir came down from Moorhead for a performance," Lichte recalls. "I talked to people who were either at the concerts or involved in the organizations, and everybody had good attendance. So there's still a place for all of these groups. It's just an amazing thing to be a part of."

Lichte says that as the old song goes, all God's critters got a place in the choir and, he adds, all choirs got a place in Minnesota.