The highlight of this holiday season's choral concerts will likely be "A Light in the Stable," by English composer Alan Bullard, written expressly for VocalEssence and given its world premiere Friday night at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Apple Valley.
The wild 19-movement cantata, accompanied by an 11-member instrumental ensemble, contains fresh arrangements of traditional carols, Nativity-themed poetry (expertly read by actor Katherine Ferrand), harmonically complex original compositions and audience singalongs.
With many surprising elements, such as the way the chorus interacted with the audience in the singalongs, the disparate elements came together into a very satisfying whole.
Artistic director Philip Brunelle programmed the second half as a change of pace, featuring Scandinavian carols and arrangements of traditional carols by Scandinavian composers. The music was enlivened by the presence of fiddler Sara Pajunen, who added authenticity as well.
Throughout, VocalEssence was at the top of its game, singing impeccably, making even the most complex harmonies sound transparent. Diction was impeccable; the texts could be perfectly understood. And the sections formed an immensely tight ensemble, each sounding like a single voice.
("Welcome Christmas," 7:30 p.m. Sat., Colonial Church of Edina, 6200 Colonial Way, Edina; 4 p.m. Sun., Plymouth Congregational Church, 1919 LaSalle Av. S., Mpls.; $10-$40, 612-371-5656, www. vocalessence.org)
'What Sweeter Music'
The Singers are a smaller and less familiar chorus than VocalEssence, but they presented an equally successful concert, heard Saturday night at St. Olaf Catholic Church in downtown Minneapolis.
The program focused on music related to Mary, primarily compositions from the mid-20th century on, but among the most engaging performances were three rousing 16th-century pieces by Palestrina and two of his contemporaries. The world premiere of a new arrangement by Jocelyn Hagen was especially moving.
Artistic director Matthew Culloton's haunting arrangement of the Polish carol "Infant Holy" was another highlight.
The program featured four selections by the late Stephen Paulus, a longtime supporter of the Singers — three carol arrangements and the composer's "Splendid Jewel." From a full-throated, harmonically complex arrangement of "Joy to the World" to a much more moody "Silent Night," this was a reminder of the great talent and generous spirit we recently lost.
The ensemble was best in the quiet moments, where it sang with bell-like clarity. But it still was capable of rousing climaxes. Culloton used a solo voice in nearly every number, but rather than emerging from the chorus, they remained embedded in the ensemble, demonstrating the high proficiency of the individual members.
("What Sweeter Music," 7:30 p.m. Sat., Lake Nokomis Lutheran Church, 5011 31st Av. S., Mpls.; 2 p.m. Sun., Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church, 1900 Wellesley Av., St. Paul; $22-$25, 651-917-1948, www.singersmca.org)
William Randall Beard writes about music.