Though composer Conrad Susa, who died in 2013, lived most of his adult years in San Francisco, where he was a professor of composition at the San Francisco Conservatory, his connections to the Twin Cities ran deep.
Two of Susa’s operas were premiered by Minnesota Opera. His “Transformations,” based on poems by Anne Sexton, debuted here in 1973 and remains one of the most frequently performed operas by an American composer.
“Black River,” a dour study in madness and suicide in 19th-century Wisconsin — Susa called it “the opera that Sibelius never wrote” — came along two years later, and a revised version was put on here in 1981. “The Dangerous Liaisons,” premiered in San Francisco, was staged by the University of Minnesota Opera Theater in 2003.
Susa’s style — fluent and elegant, incorporating elements of Baroque music, popular songs and jazz — lent itself as readily to choral music as to his vast output for the theater. Perhaps his most revered choral work — certainly most often performed — was “Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest,” a setting of 11 traditional Spanish carols. It premiered in 1992 by the Plymouth Music series, now VocalEssence.
The group’s artistic director, Philip Brunelle, who commissioned the work, made it the centerpiece of the first of the annual “Welcome Christmas” concerts Saturday night at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Apple Valley.
Brunelle is no stranger to Susa’s work. He conducted the premieres of both “Transformations” and “Black River.” To fulfill the commission, Susa came up with the idea of carols that are part of the heritage of Spanish Americans living in Arizona and New Mexico, and he used the unusual combination of harp and marimba as accompaniment, which gives these warmhearted, charming pieces the flavor of Renaissance madrigals. The Ensemble Singers, Brunelle’s smaller chorus, sang them in Spanish with clear diction and bright, resonant tone. Two veteran musicians, harpist Lynne Aspnes and percussionist David Hagedorn, added color and atmosphere to the songs.
This lively and interesting program was full of novelties. Among the highlights: Alice Parker’s gorgeous arrangement of “The Carol of the Birds” with polished solos by soprano Anna Christofaro and alto Anna Mooy; Steve Heitzeg’s sweet, tuneful “Little Carol of Hope,” receiving its first performance at this concert; Eric Whitacre’s tender, sonorous “Lux Nova”; and Brunelle’s own deft arrangement for dulcimer (Stu Janis), harp (Aspnes) guitar (Christopher Kachian), vibraphone (Hagedorn) and chorus of “The First Nowell.” This year’s Christmas carol contest winners were “Adam Lay Ybounden” by Sean Sweeden and “A Cradle Song” by Lee Blaske. VocalEssence’s expert associate conductor, G. Phillip Shoultz III, alternated with Brunelle at the podium.
The church’s resonant, spacious acoustics were an enhancement. The cheerful tone of the program could hardly be otherwise, given that the church is located on Johnny Cake Ridge Road. What’s that street one block over? Peanut Butter Lane?
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.