Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis had a festive atmosphere Friday night, as VocalEssence presented “John Rutter Jubilee,” a powerful tribute to the dean of English choral music. The program, organized by VocalEssence music director Philip Brunelle, offered a wide survey of Rutter’s work, covering more than 35 years.
Brunelle clearly loves Rutter — and his music — and he honored the composer with perfectly pristine and heartfelt performances.
The second half of the program was taken up by Rutter’s best-known work, his Requiem. From the dark, gravelly opening of the Requiem aeternam to the serene consolation of the final Lux aeterna, the chorus delivered a performance of exemplary musicianship that also registered as a statement of profound fate.
This music has an austerity rooted in plainchant that blossoms into examples of the great English anthem tradition. Built as a series of brief movements — including the rousing, exultant Sanctus and the despairing cries of the Agnus Dei — this was Rutter’s personal journey from grief to peace.
The crystalline soprano of Mari M. Scott, which set off the soaring Pie Jesu, was especially moving.
The first half of the program consisted of much lighter repertoire, sung by the 35-voice Ensemble Singers, giving the evening a nice balance of the serious and the playful.
Rutter’s “Birthday Madrigals” were written as a birthday tribute to the British jazz giant George Shearing. Obviously written for a celebration, they’re joyous and full of tongue-in-cheek humor. The pieces of Elizabethan poetry are enlivened by contemporary jazz, from ’50s swing to scat singing.
Rutter demonstrates an incredible sensitivity to setting the English language, and the Ensemble Singers responded with impeccable diction.
Another treat was his “Five Childhood Lyrics,” charming nursery verses given simple settings that were still full of art, creating delicate, gossamer vocal textures. These were delicious melodies, full of wit and good humor.
Brunelle also programmed a Christmas piece, acknowledging Rutter’s great body of holiday material. In “Carol of the Magi,” Rutter set his own text of the wise men reflecting years later. It was a quiet piece, but a deeply moving one.
A critic often refrains from the Minnesota habit of giving almost every concert a standing ovation. But this was a performance for which I enthusiastically rose to my feet.
William Randall Beard writes about music and theater.