At Orchestra Hall on Sunday afternoon, VocalEssence gave the regional premieres of two monumental works the organization had co-commissioned: William Bolcom's "Prometheus" and Michael Daugherty's "Mount Rushmore (2010) for Chorus and Orchestra." Under artistic director Philip Brunelle, VocalEssence was joined by Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and Magnum Chorum, the Singers and St. Olaf College's Manitou Singers.
"Mount Rushmore," setting texts of four presidents, was more immediately accessible and ultimately most successful. A degree of bombast aside, Daugherty sets his texts in a musically inventive, emotionally forthright manner.
The climactic final movement, "Abraham Lincoln," a setting of the Gettysburg Address, becomes a soul-ennobling portrait of Lincoln's deep humanity. The third is a full-throated paean to Theodore Roosevelt and his love for the American wilderness. It's as grand as the man himself, and the land he preserved.
The opening movements are more intimate. "George Washington" juxtaposes a Revolutionary War anthem, reflective of the commander-in-chief, with a letter that expresses a moment of aged resignation. "Thomas Jefferson" interweaves a song written to him by a paramour and a letter of his to her, with a setting of words from the Declaration of Independence.
Bolcom patterned "Prometheus" after Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, the piano depicting the suffering of the god chained to a rock as punishment for giving humanity fire. He set a poem by Byron, but words were often less important than the dense soundscapes.
From the cacophonous opening piano solo, strikingly played by Jeffrey Biegel, to the final moment of peace, Bolcom created a compelling dramatic trajectory.
Both works were sung with passionate commitment and technical mastery. Brunelle's subtle ferocity on the podium brought out the best in all the forces and the pieces.
It was nice to hear the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, under William Schrickel, play Samuel Barber's Overture to "The School for Scandal." Barber was a bright light of 20th-century American music and his centenary in 2010 went virtually unnoticed. The orchestra gave a sprightly reading of the witty score.
The concert opened with Gustav Holst's "A Hymn to Jesus," in celebration of the 20th anniversary of VocalEssence associate conductor Sigrid Johnson. Her strong leadership gave the ethereal music a forward thrust and she maintained firm control of the dynamics, at both ends of the spectrum. She gave Brunelle a run for his money.