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June 21, 2006

VocalEssence saves best for last

Pioneer Press (MN):

At first glance, the season finale for local choral ensemble VocalEssence looked to be its most uncomplicated undertaking of the year. After presenting a fully staged version of Grieg's "Peer Gynt" with the Norwegian National Opera, a ballet for Black History Month and a Handel oratorio with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, an a cappella choral concert in the company of acclaimed Swedish baritone Hakan Hagegard looked to be simplicity itself.

Ah, but the music chosen for the occasion was anything but simple, and what was designed as a showcase for Hagegard and billed as his last American concert, though he recently has confessed to some flexibility about that instead stood out as the season's best example of the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers' superior skills. And, if that weren't enough, Tuesday's season-closing concert at Bethel University's acoustically splendid Benson Great Hall also featured a world premiere commissioned for the occasion that should stand the test of time.

The program was gleaned entirely from the works of Swedish and Norwegian composers, from the "Fire Salmer" of Edvard Grieg to the new work, Sven-David Sandstrom's "Five Pictures from the Bible." One might be surprised to find such proudly Protestant countries producing music deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition of Latin chant. But such was the case with works by Otto Olsson, Ola Gjello and much of the Grieg, on which Hagegard acted as something of a cantor to the choir's congregation.

The Sandstrom piece, which comprised the second half of the program, presented a reminder that Hagegard is at his best when allowed to treat a work with gentleness. His soft, wistful approach proved deeply absorbing on the geographically appropriate story of "Jacob's Dream at Bethel" and the words of the prodigal son's forgiving father.

Sandstrom's "Five Pictures" were distinctly different in style, displaying the versatility of VocalEssence's singers, be they weaving a fine fugue on "Daniel in the Lion's Den" or creating a splash with an aural Pollack painting on the prodigal son's story. It's a piece that deserves to be heard frequently in the future, but requires a choir as talented as VocalEssence to meet its demands.

Posted by acapnews at June 21, 2006 9:19 PM