VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle is passionate about Hector Berlioz's "Te Deum." He led a rare performance of the monumental work, scored for tenor solo, two choirs and a full orchestra (complete with 12 harps), at St. Paul Cathedral on Friday night. It was the centerpiece of a sold-out concert titled "Musique de France," featuring VocalEssence Chorus and Ensemble Singers and the St. Olaf Choir.

Berlioz may have conceived the work for the resonant acoustic of a cathedral, and the ritual splendor of the sanctuary did amplify the grandeur of his creation. But the reverberations of sound around the space threatened more than once to sabotage the performance.

This was a case of Brunelle's love for the work frequently getting the better of him. In his exuberance, he was unable to maintain the balance between the massive instrumental forces and the voices. This obscured the clarity of the choruses and made it hard to appreciate their work. Particularly in the many mighty climaxes, the sound became muddy and the results ineffective.

The pickup orchestra did not help matters. There were times when its lack of cohesion was noticeable and the sour brass was distracting.

The penultimate movement featured veteran tenor Dan Dressen in a quiet prayer, but his performance was not an asset. His dry tenor, sounding tired, was of little service in the lyrical music.

In the final movement, the performance began to take on some of the majesty that had heretofore been missing. There was transparency and sharpness, even at the dynamic extremes, that the rest of the performance had lacked.

The "Te Deum" overshadowed the 20th-century French works that made up the first half of the program. This series of motets setting Latin liturgical texts, most of them performed a cappella, let each ensemble show itself off more successfully.

These works all belonged to the same tradition, blending the ancient simplicity of chant with modern harmonic and rhythmic complexity. But each explored that relationship uniquely.

Particularly enjoyable was Francis Poulenc's "Exultate Deo," bringing in a hint of jazz rhythms. The Ensemble Singers' performance of Olivier Messiaen's haunting "O Sacrum Convivium" was deeply affecting.

The St. Olaf Choir, under Anton Armstrong, performed Maurice Duruflé's "Sanctus" most effectively, especially with the wonderfully delicate playing of organist Samuel Backman.

The excellent diction and impeccable balances, revealed especially in the exposed a cappella singing, demonstrated what the choruses were capable of when not hampered by the venue.

William Randall Beard is a Minneapolis writer.