For the finale of its 48th season VocalEssence, the enterprising choral organization, moved to the Basilica of St. Mary Saturday night to present what could be called "The Stephen Hough Show."
Hough, a 55-year-old English pianist who has given frequent performances in the Twin Cities, played solo pieces by Debussy and was also represented by two choral works he composed in 2006. These were performed by two accomplished choruses, the Ensemble Singers and the larger VocalEssence Chorus, all under the direction of Philip Brunelle.
For much of music history, soloists were expected to compose — and composers to be able to play really well. This changed about a century ago, and nowadays, when no one probably cares all that much about the issue, there is still a lingering doubt: if she's such a great violinist, why does she try to compose?
To be sure, Hough's compositions, at least those performed in this concert, aren't on the level of his talent as a player. The "Mass of Innocence and Experience," which was played during the first half, sets four poems by William Blake to actual plainchant melodies — ritual chants of the early Christian church.
This is an interesting idea, the result of which is arranged in four of the traditional movements of the Latin Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. The music is plaintive and delicate — and oddly unmoving. It comes across as an exercise by an advanced student, the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant in Hough's case.
The other work, another brief Mass, this one titled "Missa Mirabilis" ("Miracle Mass"), is a bit more substantial, its tone and pacing more varied. Both works have organ accompaniment, which in places makes an odd fit with the simple, ethereal vocal lines, being rather craggy and complicated — and a trifle too loud, it seemed. Aaron David Miller was the organist.
Not surprisingly, most of the words of the text were swallowed up in the vast space of the basilica, an environment that has defeated many a musical group over the years. True, Hough composed these pieces for church spaces: Westminster Abbey and Cathedral. Perhaps the aural soup there isn't so thick.
The singers sang beautifully in any case, and Hough played the two books of Debussy's "Image" (and "Clair de lune" as an opener) with compelling grace and dexterity. His way with Debussy is not so common these days: flexible tempos and phrasing, warm tone and a varied touch. The fast sections, of course, were a blur of colliding echoes, as if we were remembering them in a dream.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.