“Was I nearly insane to make this quilt?”
The question was posed by Kay McCarthy about an especially intricate quilt she made in 2013 — 32 tiny samples sewn together in a diagonal setting. McCarthy, who lives in Excelsior, is what is known as a quilter. She has sewn hundreds of quilts, each one different, each one displaying elaborate patterns and no small amount of mystery.
Five of her quilts served as the inspiration for “Quilt Songs,” a choral work given its premiere Sunday at Central Lutheran Church as part of the opening of VocalEssence’s 48th season. Five female composers were asked to pick one of McCarthy’s quilts, select a favorite poem and then set that poem to music for a cappella chorus, retaining the quilt as a kind of muse.
The result, performed with impressive care and focus by the Ensemble Singers under the direction of Philip Brunelle, was a set of lovely, rather delicate choral songs of a gentle, mostly lyrical nature.
It wasn’t possible, at least on first hearing, to discern correlations between musical patterns and those of the quilts, which were pictured in the program and on display in the hall of the church. Correlations weren’t necessary, in any case. Possibly, however, frequent use of counterpoint in the songs reflected design elements in the quilts. And perhaps the vocal lines in “The Children’s Orchard” by Libby Larsen, one of two Minnesota composers represented, reflected the intertwined lines of memory in the poem by Muriel Rukeyser she chose.
The other composers were Alice Parker, Carol Barnett (the other Minnesotan), Gabriela Lena Frank and Ysaye Barnwell, who set the aforementioned “Nearly Insane” to a sultry tango rhythm.
This abundant program opened with a set of songs based on Shakespeare texts in honor of the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. Joseph Haj, artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, gave animated recitations of passages from three of the plays.
Associate conductor G. Phillip Shoultz presided over the second half, which included a brief but atmospheric work by Catherine Dalton, “Out Beyond Ideas,” and a long, overly ambitious piece by English composer Bob Chilcott, “Voyage,” which received its American premiere in this performance.
For “Voyage,” several other local choruses joined Brunelle’s regular singers: the Minneapolis Youth Chorale, the Sabathani Vintage Voices and the Voices of Experience. The idea was a mix of generations and the use of choral singing as a cure for loneliness, a voyage on a ship being a metaphor for the voyage of life.
The music is attractive. Chilcott writes good tunes and composes well for voices. But the work lacks drama and musical depth. Idealism trumps content in this case. Had Chilcott created individual characters on his voyage, the score might have come to life, and the ship might have survived the trip.
Michael Anthony is a music writer and critic.