For its 45th-season opener, Sunday afternoon at Central Lutheran in Minneapolis. VocalEssence went big. There was soprano Maria Jette, tenor Dan Dressen, the St. Olaf Choir and Northfield Youth Choirs, more than 300 voices, with a full symphony orchestra, for the U.S. premiere of British composer Jonathan Dove’s “There Was a Child.”

This hour-long oratorio is a massive work, especially in its emotional force. It was commissioned by a friend of the composer whose 19-year-old son drowned while snorkeling in Thailand. Dove exploited the variety of vocal textures possible to create a powerful statement.

His orchestrations were shimmering and evocative, as when, in Keats’ “A Song About Myself,” the winds amplified the character of a naughty boy. There were moments of a cappella simplicity, as in Langston Hughes’, “Birth,” abstract verses given a complex, emotional context.

But too many climaxes turned bombastic. And the music too often overwhelmed the delicate poetry, as in two settings of Emily Dickinson.

Music Director Philip Brunelle led a strong performance, maintaining balances between the forces while conveying the emotional power.

As the boy, Dressen’s was a thoughtful reading, but not at all youthful. Jette, as the mother, was at her most expressive in a lamentation from Shakespeare’s “King John.”

Dove did not end the piece in grief. He used Whitman’s “There Was a Child” to close with a celebration of life. He ended the work on an inspirationally quiet note.

The concert opened with two performances by the Ensemble Singers, opening with a world-premiere by Aaron Jay Kernis, “Glorious Majesty (Psalm 104).” This was an extremely difficult piece, densely harmonic. But Kernis is a master at conveying the meaning of texts, capturing both the glorious praise to God and the earthy simplicity of the human enterprise.

This is a work that will likely not be performed very frequently due to its difficulty. So it was good to hear it here. I would love another opportunity.

The Ensemble Singers also gave a stirring performance of Stephen Paulus’ “The Day is Done,” sung to honor Paulus, who is slowly recovering from a stroke. This is a work of utter simplicity that captures a deep and abiding faith. Brunelle conducted with clear love for the composer and the composition. The result was moving.


William Randall Beard writes about music.