Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but music lovers have floated a new state motto: Land of 10,000 Choirs.
As founder and music director of Minneapolis-based VocalEssence, Philip Brunelle has conducted widely in Europe and throughout the U.S. “I can’t think of any other state with such a broad choral interest,” Brunelle said. “Which is why Minnesota is known as ‘Choral Country.’ ”
The globe-trotting conductor chalks it up to the state’s cultural heritage. “Many of the settlers who came to Minnesota in the 1800s came from countries with strong choral backgrounds,” Brunelle said. “Particularly folks from the Scandinavian countries and Germany.”
Those immigrants kept singing once they arrived in Minnesota — in their churches, schools, universities and folk ensembles. A statewide music education program in the 20th century didn’t hurt matters, either.
Despite 21st-century cuts, a strong choral tradition persists to this day. And December happens to be prime time for sampling Minnesota’s dazzling array of pro vocal ensembles. Here are 10 holiday concerts representing the very best of the state’s choral scene.
Handel’s “Messiah” premiered at a crowded Dublin concert in April 1742. Though not specifically intended for Christmas, it nonetheless became a staple of the season. It’s been a year since the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra first teamed up with Twin Cities choir the Singers for a performance of Handel’s masterpiece. They repeat the collaboration with a string of concerts led by Cleveland baroque specialist Jeannette Sorrell. The SPCO is full of players savvy to the crisp, athletic style that makes baroque music swing. And Sorrell’s influence should ensure a bristlingly enjoyable experience. (7:30 p.m. Dec. 20 and 8 p.m. Dec. 21, Basilica of St. Mary, Mpls.; 8 p.m. Dec. 22-23, Ordway Concert Hall, St. Paul; $5-$50, 651-291-1144 or thespco.org)
‘A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’
Anyone can be touched by the special ambience of this event, featuring the story of Christ’s birth told through music and biblical readings. The “Nine Lessons” format was invented in Truro, England, during the Victorian era. But it didn’t become popular until King’s College, Cambridge started broadcasting it to global audiences in 1928. The choir of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral presents its own version led by Cambridge-educated music director Ray Johnston. An ideal way of pondering the spiritual message of the Christmas season. (7:30 p.m. Dec. 21 and 5 p.m. Dec. 23, St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Mpls.; free, ourcathedral.org)
‘Christmas With Cantus’
The eight-man Cantus ensemble rethinks the “Nine Lessons and Carols” template for the modern era. The Twin Cities ensemble offers up a bespoke sequence of words and music including John Rutter’s “Gabriel’s Message,” Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria.” Touring to nine metro venues, the concert offers a unique combination of mindful reflection and high-class vocalism. (Dec. 13, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Mpls.; Dec. 14, Fridley District Auditorium, Fridley; Dec. 15, Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, Apple Valley; Dec. 17, Colonial Church, Edina; Dec. 18, St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, Wayzata; Dec. 20, Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Paul; Dec. 21, Ordway Concert Hall, St. Paul; Dec. 22, Trinity Lutheran Church, Stillwater; Dec. 23, Hamline United Methodist Church, St. Paul, various times; $10-$43, 612-435-0055 or cantussings.org)
Bach’s ‘Christmas Oratorio’
How do you like your Bach? Some like it with large choirs, while others favor smaller groups of singers. Falling somewhere between is the Minnesota Chorale. For its performances of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” the chorale’s roster will be 48 singers. The group excels at combining weight of sound and attention to detail. No wonder the Minnesota Orchestra is partnering with the chorale for the second half of Bach’s retelling of the Christmas story, which focuses on the Wise Men’s visit and the threat of Herod. Baroque specialist Nicholas Kraemer conducts, with outstanding English countertenor Robin Blaze among the soloists. (8 p.m. Dec. 8 and 2 p.m. Dec. 9, Orchestra Hall, Mpls.; $12-$70, 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org)
Tired of the same old carols? Hankering for something new this Christmas season? Check out the annual VocalEssence holiday program. The ensemble has commissioned new works for every December concert since its inception in 1969. This year’s program features the group’s best Christmas commissions over the years, including pieces by Libby Larsen, Bob Chilcott, Judith Bingham and Stephen Paulus, along with winning entries from VocalEssence’s 21st carol contest. And of course, there’s also a world premiere to mark the 2018 Christmas season: “The Faire Starre” by exciting young composer Nico Muhly, whose opera “Marnie” recently debuted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. (7:30 p.m. Dec. 7, Roseville Lutheran Church, Roseville; 4 p.m. Dec. 8-9, Plymouth Congregational Church, Mpls.; $20-$40, 612-371-5656 or vocalessence.org)
‘A Tudor Christmas’
How did Christmas sound 500 years ago? The Rose Ensemble answers that question by cherry-picking festive music from the courts of English monarchs Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Lovers of Renaissance vocal music will relish the inclusion of works by William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Robert Carver and Robert Johnson. Carols and dances of the period are also featured, in a slice of musical time travel to an earlier era. With 2018-19 being the Rose Ensemble’s final season, this marks the group’s last holiday program after more than two decades of curating this fascinating type of historical recital. (7 p.m. Dec. 20, Pilgrim Congregational Church, Duluth; 8 p.m. Dec. 21, Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church, St. Paul; 8 p.m. Dec. 22, Basilica of St. Mary, Mpls.; 3 p.m. Dec. 23, Church of the Holy Cross, Mpls.; $10-$38, roseensemble.org)
‘Star of Wonder’
Sure, you’d like to hear some Christmas music, but it’s hard finding a babysitter. The solution? Take the kids to this seasonal VocalEssence concert, designed specifically for families with babies and toddlers. Members of the organization’s elite Ensemble Singers and its new youth Singers of This Age choir perform a selection of popular holiday carols. Singalongs and playing with toys are encouraged. Hands-on craft activities are also available. Bonus: Bring up to four children for free with each adult ticket. (9:30 a.m. Dec. 8, Minneapolis Institute of Art; $15, 612-371-5656 or vocalessence.org)
It’s Minnesota all the way in this special installment of the Schubert Club’s Courtroom Concert series. Curated and hosted by St. Paul composer Abbie Betinis, the program features winter songs and carols by Minnesota-connected composers including Libby Larsen, Bob Dylan, Linda Kachelmeier and Neal and Leandra. Even John Denver is represented (he temporarily lived here). It’s all performed by a Minnesota vocal quartet featuring soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw, mezzo-soprano Laura Betinis Healy, tenor Nicholas Chalmers and bass Timothy C. Takach. Because last year’s concert was so popular, the Schubert Club offers two performances this year. Get there early for a shot of home-state pride and creativity. (Noon Dec. 20, Landmark Center, St. Paul; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20, Central Presbyterian Church, St. Paul; free, schubert.org)
‘A Million Reasons to Believe’
For those who like their Christmas fun, colorful and none too reverential, the 150 voices of the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus have your ticket. Pop influences are stirred into traditional Christmas melodies, musical skits and sketches. There’s even a holiday spoof on the Queen of the Night’s dizzy-making aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” The title? “Revenge of the Eggnog.” This marks the inaugural concert for the group’s newly appointed artistic director, Gerald Gurss. (8 p.m. Dec. 7-8 and 2 p.m. Dec. 9, Ted Mann Concert Hall, University of Minnesota, Mpls.; $25-$48, 612-624-2345 or tcgmc.org)
‘Beauty in the Darkness’
Here’s the perfect antidote for the bright lights and overcommercialization of Christmas. Founded four years ago, the four-woman Lumina vocal ensemble specializes in intimate, high-quality performances of close-harmony pieces. The holiday program “Beauty in the Darkness: Music for the Longest Night of the Year” offers a perfect opportunity to chill out with a selection of music spanning the centuries. Renaissance polyphony by Cristóbal de Morales rubs shoulders with music by Bob Dylan and Lumina member Linda Kachelmeier, plus some traditional Christmas tunes. (7 p.m. Dec. 21, Carondolet Center, St. Paul; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 22, St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Mpls.; $10, luminawomensensemble.com)
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.