No stranger to ambitious new works or to concerts with big themes, the choral organization VocalEssence opened its 47th season Sunday afternoon at the O'Shaughnessy in St. Paul with a concert devoted to "veteran's voices."
The varied and lively program, a collaboration with the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, offered works of an earlier day by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Samuel Barber, Howard Hanson and Joseph Canteloube, all of them touching on warfare and the soldier's life. Between these were recent works: "Controlled Burn" by Jocelyn Hagen and the hip-hop artist Dessa, and the large work for chorus, orchestra and piano solo that give the concert its title, "Dreams of the Fallen." It was premiered in New Orleans in 2013; this was the work's Midwest premiere.
Jake Runestad, a 29-year-old Illinois native who now lives in Minneapolis, composed "Dreams" on a text drawn from the much-acclaimed poetry of Brian Turner, whose work reflects his seven years in the U.S. Army. A third element is the piano soloist, Jeffrey Biegel in this instance.
The piano actually becomes a character in the music, a soldier, perhaps, who suffers through the terrors of combat and emerges finally able to deal with his troubling emotions.
Though none of this is spelled out in literal detail, there is clearly a progression in text and music from extreme violence to a kind of peaceful and well-earned acceptance that is not at all sentimental. Light seems to enter the music in Runestad's beautifully written — and imaginatively orchestrated — final pages and, for the first time, we hear solo voices singing a gentle upward-climbing melody, suggesting that humanity has finally prevailed and might even survive. Turner's haunting opening words are repeated at the end: "And I keep telling myself that if I walk far enough or long enough, someday I'll come out the other side."
Philip Brunelle led a powerful performance by this excellent orchestra and his own combined vocal group: the Ensemble Singers and the VocalEssence Chorus. Without trying to, the program made clear how much more visceral and realistic we are today in our depiction of war. Compare a John Wayne movie about World War II with Steven Spielberg's grisly "Saving Private Ryan." Similarly, Runestad's sounds of war are brutal compared to the cheerful optimism in Vaughan Williams' "Toward the Unknown Region" and Hanson's "Song of Democracy."
William Schrickel conducted the orchestra in a passionate reading of Barber's "Adagio for Strings," and soprano Maria Jette was beguiling in Canteloube's "Songs of a Shepherd." The concert also introduced VocalEssence's new associate conductor, G. Phillip Shoultz III.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis music writer.