What would Bob Dylan’s songs sound like if sung by a classically trained choir of 150? Would that be sacrilege?
The answer came at Saturday evening’s VocalEssence concert in St. Paul’s Palace Theatre. Its centerpiece was the Midwest premiere of composer Steve Hackman’s “The Times They are A-Changin’,” a set of 13 classic Dylan numbers re-imagined in a choral setting.
Hackman’s work went well beyond a simple cloaking-out of Dylan’s tunes in prettified part-song harmonies.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” sounded innocuous enough till Hackman inserted a trippy middle eight where the song spun outward into realms of free-form fantasy.
“All Along the Watchtower” was initially brooding and introspective but eventually gathered an almost operatic resonance as Hackman layered in extra voices and built an apocalyptic crescendo.
The same exploding of a song’s inner content happened with “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” where Hackman draped Dylan’s visionary text with darkly Gothic harmonies.
The difficult task of deciding exactly how to stress and accent Dylan’s notoriously tricky vocal delivery was neatly solved by Hackman in his settings.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” is a graveyard of high-speed syllables for any solo performer, let alone a large choir. But it fizzed along exhilaratingly in Hackman’s radical, ricocheting rethink, a tribute to the VocalEssence singers’ diction.
Hackman’s settings were capable of simplicity, too. “I Shall Be Released” had gorgeous conventional harmonies and tapped movingly into the music’s deep roots in the gospel tradition.
So too did “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” where VocalEssence associate conductor G. Phillip Shoultz contributed a heartfelt tenor solo.
Another solo turn elicited the biggest cheer of the evening when guitarist Pat Donohue delivered a headily evocative, fingerpickin’ version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”
Time and again the startling contemporary relevance of Dylan’s lyrics cut through, nowhere more so than in Hackman’s dramatic recasting of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
Lacing the song with troubled harmonies, Hackman convincingly morphed it from the intimacy of a few unison voices to an epic communal lament for a broken America.
VocalEssence music director Philip Brunelle led a typically well-prepared performance. Attired in black leather vest and bolo, he looked a little like an extra from Sam Peckinpah’s movie “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” in which Dylan himself had a cameo.
There were highlights before intermission too. They included a bouncy, surf-pop arrangement of Jeremy Messersmith’s “Violet!,” with Messersmith taking the lead vocal.
Ashley DuBose guested on her own “Be You,” and vocal duo Nation led the choir in “Hands,” their wordless anthem of interconnectedness.
Occasionally the amplified sound became a bit too strident, boosting the accompanying band at the expense of the singers and coarsening the typically warm, blended sound of VocalEssence.
But the major takeaway of the evening was the abiding power and quality of Bob Dylan’s music.
Hackman’s choral version could have been mawkish and inappropriate. Instead it celebrated the songs and burned them freshly into the consciousness of a new era — and a different set of listeners.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.