It’s been 50 years since an ambitious young musician from Faribault, Minn., started his new job as organist and choirmaster at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis.

His name was Philip Brunelle. A half-century later, he still occupies the same position — playing the organ for services, conducting the choir and overseeing the church’s thriving musical activities. That alone is cause for celebration, with a string of recent events marking Brunelle’s five decades of service to the Plymouth congregation.

But Brunelle’s church job is only part of the story. All along, he built a parallel career as a conductor of international standing, especially renowned for his work with the VocalEssence choral ensemble, formerly known as the church-based Plymouth Music Series. (The new name was adopted in 2002.)

VocalEssence celebrates its own half-century with a 50th-anniversary concert Sunday at the Ordway, showcasing music and performers from the choir’s illustrious history. In honor of the occasion, we’ve also done some reflecting, pulling together five signature achievements in VocalEssence history — moments that strike this critic as pivotal to the development of a uniquely vibrant choral organization.

(Read the Minneapolis Star's Feb. 23, 1970 review of Copland's Plymouth Music Series concert.)

1. Aaron Copland connection

In 1969, during the first full season for Plymouth Music Series. Brunelle decided something major needed to happen. Why not call America’s greatest living composer and ask him to conduct the totally untried, untested Plymouth choir?

Brunelle’s chutzpah was immense, but it also paid off immediately. “I knew that if you start something new, you have to start with a bang,” he said in an interview last week. Aaron Copland was already due in Minneapolis for a February 1970 engagement with Minnesota Orchestra. Brunelle simply asked the composer to lead an additional concert with his fledging ensemble. “And he said, ‘Young man, no one has asked me to do my choral music. They always ask me to do my orchestral music. Of course I’ll come.’ ”

Brunelle remembers Copland’s visit as a time of happy, carefree music-making. “He was just a dear, wonderful man — very gentle, very self-deprecatory,” Brunelle remembered. “The singers adored him.”

That concert — titled “In the Beginning,” after one of Copland’s choral pieces — marked the start of a collaboration that peaked two decades later with the 1990 recording of Copland’s opera “The Tender Land.” It also showed that Brunelle’s new choir meant business, setting the pace for ambitious composer collaborations.

2. Rediscovering Handel

“Saul.” “Solomon.” “Esther.” “Jephtha.” “Judas Maccabaeus.” Today, most followers of baroque music will instantly recognize the titles of these Handel oratorios, knowing they contain some of the composer’s finest choral music.

Back in the 1970s, though, things were different. Handel’s oratorios were virtually unknown to most concertgoers. Yet they topped Brunelle’s radar. “I just thought people should know that there is more to Handel than ‘Messiah,’ ” Brunelle said.

The result was a pioneering series of annual performances of Handel oratorios, cast exclusively with local performers.

“We always had excellent soloists at Plymouth Church, so I knew that all the arias could be covered,” Brunelle said. “And I invited friends from the Minnesota Orchestra to be the players.”

By more than a decade, these performances predated the larger classical world’s revived interest in Handel oratorios. And they typified a curiosity about discovering and performing unfamiliar repertoire.

3. The first commission

“I would love to commission you, but I don’t know how to do this.”

The year was 1973, and Brunelle was speaking to composer Dominick Argento, his former teacher at the University of Minnesota. Brunelle was passionately interested in contemporary music. He wanted his Plymouth Music Series choir to sing more of it.

The problem? He was still a raw 28-year-old with no idea of how this commissioning business actually functioned.

The solution? Argento patiently talked the young man through the process. “He told me to call his publisher to work out the financial arrangements,” Brunelle remembered. “I said I wanted a 30-minute piece — that’s what I figured I could afford.”

When Argento’s “Jonah and the Whale” came in at nearly double that length, Brunelle panicked. “I said, ‘Dominick, I don’t have more money,’ ” Brunelle remembered. “But he said, ‘I just got inspired and kept writing. The fee stays the same.’ ”

Bringing “Jonah” to fruition “taught me everything about how to do commissioning,” Brunelle said. More than 100 commissions later, VocalEssence is still a tireless supporter of contemporary composers, especially those living in Minnesota.

4. ‘Paul Bunyan’ moment

By 1987, nearly two decades into the VocalEssence story, Brunelle’s choir had established itself as a mainstay of the Minnesota music scene. What happened that year would catapult the group to international prominence.

It started with a visit from legendary English tenor Peter Pears, composer Benjamin Britten’s partner, for a concert with the Plymouth Music Series.

“At one point Peter asked me if I knew Britten’s opera ‘Paul Bunyan’ about the mythic American folk hero with Minnesota connections,” Brunelle recalled. “So I got thinking about ‘Bunyan,’ and I thought — we’ve got to do this piece.”

The Minnesota group’s semi-staged production was followed by a first-ever recording of the opera, captured at the Ordway Music Theater by the British Virgin Classics label. It won a prestigious U.K. Gramophone Award in 1988, bringing the “Plymouth Music Series Minnesota” (as the album cover put it) to global attention. Thirty years later, this is still the reference recording of the opera — not to mention a symbol of VocalEssence’s ability to pull off innovative projects at an international level.

5. A ‘Witness’ for black composers

It was a routine day, about 30 years ago. Brunelle was listening to the radio.

“They played a Duke Ellington song, and said ‘That’s our tribute to Black History Month.’ And I remember thinking, ‘That’s it? One song? Why don’t we know more about choral music by African-American composers?’ ”

Thus was the inspiration for “Witness,” a VocalEssence program celebrating the music and history of African-American composers.

From the outset, in 1991, the “Witness” series had a strong educational component, taking music to local schools for workshops and performances. “It started out with one school,” Brunelle remembered. “We have 60 schools now.”

Every year, “Witness” produces both a Young People’s Concert and one for the general public (the 2018-19 concert comes Feb. 24 at Orchestra Hall). At these performances, VocalEssence has premiered new works by composers including Ysaÿe Barnwell, Rosephanye Powell and Bobby McFerrin. “We have been able to experience so many composers we would never have heard in the Twin Cities,” Brunelle said.

With “Witness,” VocalEssence blazed a trail of inclusivity in classical music well before the industrywide mandate emerging today.

VocalEssence 50th Anniversary Concert

With: Dessa, Bradley Greenwald, Maria Jette, Clara Osowski, Don Shelby, Vern Sutton, Pop Wagner.

When: 4 p.m. Sun.

Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

Tickets: $20-$40, 651-224-4222, ordway.org.

 

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at artsblain@gmail.com.