Some composers are merely dutiful conductors of their own compositions, beating time and bringing little else to the table. Englishman John Rutter does more than that.

Arms tightly braced at shoulder level, he stabs, sweeps and punctuates the air around him with his baton, a ball of concentrated energy and pent-up enthusiasm for his own music.

Rutter is 72 now and a legend in choral circles: No choral composer of the past century has been nearly as popular and successful.

Conducting the VocalEssence choirs at the Cathedral of St. Paul on Saturday evening, he was in his element.

Rutter's half of the concert began with the Ensemble Singers, the smaller of VocalEssence's two choirs, performing "Musica Dei donum" to the gorgeous flute accompaniment of Michele Frisch.

The main VocalEssence Chorus joined in for "Hymn to the Creator of Light," a piece laced with questioning chromatic harmonies tinglingly projected by the singers.

A pleasing combination of gusto and technical refinement marked the choral contributions in "Feel the Spirit," a set of seven spirituals in Rutter's colorful arrangements.

The renowned mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson was the soloist and brought a deep, soulful authority to quieter numbers such as "Steal Away" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."

A 15-piece orchestra vividly augmented the singers for "Feel the Spirit." The violins and violas morphed into pretend-banjos for "When the Saints Go Marching In," a drum kit added spiky rhythms, and a slinky jazz clarinet brought a Dixieland flavor to "Every Time I Feel the Spirit."

Rutter jinked and jiggled sideways on the podium in the livelier passages and turned to cue the audience in a couple of lusty choruses from "When the Saints." He had a huge smile on his face and seemed to relish every minute of the performance.

Earlier, Rutter led the world premiere of "Music," a new work he had specially written as an early birthday present for VocalEssence, whose 50th anniversary season begins in September.

The piece was quintessential Rutter, with easy, mellifluous melodies and sweetly blended harmony. Some of its delicacy dissipated in the vast Cathedral of St. Paul, but the performance of the Ensemble Singers seemed ideally sensitive.

In the first half of the evening, VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle and associate conductor G. Phillip Shoultz led the singers in a selection of pieces that exploited the cathedral's far-flung architectural spaces.

For Stephen Paulus' "Visions," the 150 singers were split into four groups and deployed quadraphonically at the four corners of the cathedral's main floor area. Four marimbas provided a burbling accompaniment.

A similar arrangement was used for John Tavener's mesmerizing "Coplas," minus the marimbas but with the addition of a chanting quartet of vocal soloists.

It was the type of immersive sound that you could virtually float in, chiffon textures hovering lightly and tantalizingly in the vaulted air around you.

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