Keeping gatherings small was recommended months ago by public health experts seeking to curb COVID. So what's a choral organization with 129 singers to do?
Well, VocalEssence has come up with an idea. For this year's edition of its popular "Welcome Christmas" concerts — a streaming video presentation — it divided its massive vocal forces up into six chamber choirs of about 20 singers each, the groups passing a playlist of 17 songs one to another over the course of an hour-long program.
Its debut Sunday proved so popular that it crashed VocalEssence's servers and hogged enough broadband to periodically render the singers' movements akin to stop-action claymation characters.
But I watched it again when the stream wasn't so crowded, and it proved a crisp and lovely video presentation, expertly designed and filmed — and well sung, too, the masked performers safely distanced in the tastefully decorated Plymouth sanctuary, waist-high cylinders of light dotting the stage.
The singers were admirably expressive in their eyes and physicality, never more so than on soprano JoAnna Johnson's concert-launching solo rendition of "O Holy Night." Her spine-tingling interpretation was complemented by Sarah Grudem's hypnotic harp, which proved ideally evocative for the meditative moods of many a piece.
Alto Patricia Kramer was also an exceptional soloist, bringing a warm and gentle touch to Stephen Paulus' arrangement of the Finnish lullaby "Pium Paum." As for ensemble work, the harmonies were never more arresting than on Michael Fink's "What Sweeter Music" and Carl Schalk's "Before the Marvel of This Night."
That said, I found myself wishing for more adrenalin rushes like the Mexican baroque rave-up "Convidando Esta la Noche," propelled by guitarist Christopher Kachian's percussive strumming. It came closest to capturing the ebullient conviviality of that holiday party you won't be attending this year.
Conductors Philip Brunelle and G. Phillip Shoultz III have assembled a program with a solemnity more appropriate for Advent than Christmas. Perhaps the smallness of the groups contributed to that. Yet when most of the 97-voice VocalEssence Chorus did gather via something like a massive Zoom call, it was to deliver one of the most melancholic versions of "White Christmas" I've experienced and a rendition of Daniel Kantor's "Night of Silence" in which the whole never became greater than the sum of its parts.
If "Welcome Christmas" doesn't seem quite as festive this year, that's understandable. I'm thankful these singers are raising their voices again.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities freelance classical critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org.