February 17, 2011
Founded by Philip Brunelle in 1969 under the name Plymouth Music Series, VocalEssence is recognized internationally for innovative exploration of music for voices and instruments. Each year the organization, under Brunelle's direction, presents a series of concerts featuring the 120-voice VocalEssence Chorus and the 32-voice Ensemble Singers along with soloists and instrumentalists. VocalEssence has received the ASCAP/ Chorus America Award for adventurous programming of contemporary music an unprecedented five times, and was awarded the Margaret Hillis Achievement Award for Choral Excellence. In December of 2005, Philip Brunelle was recognized for his outstanding service to British music and culture by being named an Honorary Member of Order of the British Empire.
You perforned with Garrison Keillor in late January along with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. This is a concert performance that you have performed together for many years across the country. What should one expect to hear when they purchase the CD?
Well, no two orchestra programs are ever the same...that wouldn't be Garrison! Each program has him singing, narrating, and obviously enjoying the orchestra and the audience. Some music is by classical composers like Bizet and Dvorak with lyrics created by Garrison, other pieces are ones that Garrison has commissioned from Bill McGlaughlin, Andy Stein and Dan Kallman. There are also arrangements of lovely folksongs. It is a real pot pourri! (Editor's note: CD release date is June, 2011)
Recently, A Prairie Home Companion has delved deep into its performance archive for Old Sweet Songs, and assembled a great CD highlighting the music from the first two years of the show. You appeared on a song called An Action Guide to the Yellow Pages with words selected by Garrison where you performed an improvised underscore. Was there a lot of improvisation in the early years?
Improvisation for voice and piano was mainly a feature of the Thanksgiving show.
Vern Sutton and Janis Hardy are the only two singers around here who have the skill and the wits to improvise in various classical styles and rhyme at the same time! The Thanksgiving show included hundreds of items that audience members were thankful for – these were collected at the beginning of the broadcast and then Vern, Janis and I got busy in the Fitzgerald basement separating all the slips of paper into categories, trying to find the best ones to use. Then we had to determine a format. All this time the clock was running, of course, and we knew we had to have a 4-movement Thanksgiving Cantata ready for the last ½ hour of the show.
Listen to Nessun Dorma featuring Raul Melo performing with VocalEssence
As one of the earliest guests in A Prairie Home Companion history, what is your favorite memory or recollection from performing on the show?
I have 2 favorites: One was the time that Janis Hardy brought her dog Freckles on the show to sing a duet with her, "Indian Love Call". It is impossible to describe in words what happened when Janis begin singing, reached a high note and suddenly Freckles joined in. The audience was hysterical and it was the only time I remember Garrison being totally doubled over in laughter.
The other time was the first of many appearances of the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers on the show when Garrison had written a story about a choir that mutinied and got rid of their conductor. The challenge of musical styles involved, coupled with the fantastic story Garrison wove, made this absolutely memorable...and it still is!
How do you think the show has changed over the years?
Well, it is now timed more closely, there is a more diverse group of guest performers, but the spontaneity has not changed. In an early December show I remember Garrison coming off stage saying that he quickly needed something that last less than 2 minutes. So, I went out and sang "Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer" in Latin. That did the trick!
Tell us about VocalEssence
VocalEssence is the most unique choral organization in the area. It was founded to present choral repertoire of the past and present that was not known around here. The first season I called up Aaron Copland and invited him to come and conduct his choral music...some no one had ever asked him to do. He came and that was the start of a wonderful friendship. Over the years, VocalEssence has expanded so that it now has the 32-voice professional group, the Ensemble Singers, as well as the 100 voice volunteer Chorus. The high quality of performance by all these singers is due to the fact that everyone is required to re-audition regularly and, vocal quality is carefully monitored by my extraordinary assistant, Sigrid Johnson.
What are your future plans for VocalEssence? Will you be breaking any new barriers or genres as I truly enjoyed the hearing a choir sing bluegrass.
Our motto has always been: Expect the Unexpected. This spring, in early April, we will present 2 performances of Bach`s MASS IN B MINOR...it will be given in true Baroque style... BUT with a film created for the Mass which will be shown at the same time! We are also becoming greatly involved with Mexican music and there is a lot of wonderful music that folks in the USA don't know at all.
Listen to the World Premiere of "Table Grace"
How did you come about setting "Table Grace to music?" It was a world premiere presentation and arrangement by VocalEssence.
For our Thanksgiving concert with Garrison last November I told him that we had a young composer that we wanted to feature and did he have an idea for a text –
He did, it was "Table Grace".
When the ensemble appears on the show, how do you prepare to not only sing but appear in sketches?
I try to find some music that the Ensemble Singers can bring as "set pieces' that can fit in anywhere. Then Garrison comes up with ideas that become skits needing music. Paul Gerike is then brought in to create musical material and this all happens within the last week. The important thing is to be relaxed; getting tense will not make things better, only worse.
Would you care to share any advice for young singers or performers?
Be as inquisitive as possible. Listen widely to lots of singers and styles. Keep your mind open. And always be prepared!
NOTE: For more information about VocalEssence and their upcoming performances, please visit vocalessence.org
VocalEssence Selected Works
Garrison Keillor & The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Available in June
- Marcia Ball
- Suzy Bogguss
- Philip Brunelle
- Archive Fun: Iris DeMent
- Pat Donohue
- Pat Donohue
- Mike Dowling
- Archive Fun: Bob Dylan
- Archive Fun: Emmylou Harris
- The Hopeful Gospel Quartet
- Ledward Kaapana
- Tom Keith
- Laurie Lewis
- Patty Loveless
- Heather Masse
- Jay Ungar and Molly Mason
- Delbert McClinton
- The Nashville Bluegrass Band
- Tracy Nelson
- Mollie Obrien
- Peter Ostroushko
- Peter Ostroushko
- Paula Poundstone
- Tim Russell
- Sue Scott
- Jo Serrapera
- Ricky Skaggs
- Ralph Stanley II
- Jearlyn Steele
- Andra Suchy
- Andra Suchy
- Inga Swearingen
- Richard Thompson
- April Verch
- Rhonda Vincent
- Sara Watkins
- Archive Fun: Gillian Welch
- Robin & Linda Williams
- Robin & Linda Williams
Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).