VocalEssence with Garrison Keillor – Hymn to Potatoes and Other Masterworks from “A Prairie Home Companion” – Garrison Keillor, narrator/VocalEssence Ensemble Singers/Philip Brunelle, conductor/ Charles Kemper, piano/Richard Dvorsky – VocalEssence Records

by | Jan 29, 2007 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

VocalEssence with Garrison Keillor – Hymn to Potatoes and Other Masterworks from “A Prairie Home Companion” – Garrison Keillor, narrator/VocalEssence Ensemble Singers/Philip Brunelle, conductor/ Charles Kemper, piano/Richard Dvorsky & The Guys All-Star Shoe Band – VocalEssence Records 0605 (2 CD set), 52:55, 45:49, *****:

If you have never spent an enjoyable Saturday evening listening to Garrison Keillor spinning yarns about fanciful Lake Wobegon and its residents, let this CD be an introduction you’ll never forget.  The selections are taken from the many appearances that VocalEssence has made on this much-loved public radio program.

Garrison Keillor is an enormously appealing storyteller and narrator, and this recording displays his considerable talents to the best advantage.  His unassuming manner, masterful yet understated comedic timing, and ability to bring the audience along as involved participants have made him one of today’s most popular radio personalities.  Those who have been lucky enough to attend one of his live shows (as part of his ongoing tours) will attest that it is just as funny in person.  

The VocalEssence Ensemble Singers, conducted by Philip Brunelle, is one of the finest and most versatile choral groups in the country. Their artistic range extends from the earliest Renaissance motets to a John Lennon tune with visits to everywhere else in between.  The voices of this ensemble are well tuned and beautiful – especially the sopranos, who have a bell-like quality in their upper ranges that makes the entire group that much sweeter to the ear.  The other sections are just as good and provide listeners with an appealing sound that lets them appreciate the humor behind some of the material presented here without having to forgo good choral singing in the process. 

There is an abundance of humor to enjoy on this disc.  Garrison Keillor tells a story of how Franz Schubert was loved and supported by his friends while waiting for an audience to find his music, during which time they fed him his favorite food that inspired him to write his famous “Hymn to Potatoes” (unknown to me until I was enlightened by this tale.) Apparently, Schubert also composed a men’s piece about the joys of being without women entitled “Song of the Sons of Bernie” (sung to the tune of “Wiederspruch”).  Listen carefully to the words and imagine a counterpart that might have been composed by women. For those of us who grew up as “choir nerds,” I highly recommend “Runaway Choir.” It will bring back memories and give you a healthy dose of nostalgia and memories of musical times gone by, as well as providing some great choral singing along the way in many different styles.  My favorite selection on this disc was “Come With Me and Be My Love” by the popular British composer John Rutter.  It reminded me of another Rutter song I have conducted, “It Was a Lover and His Lass.”  This jazz-infused selection is very challenging; and VocalEssence truly did it justice.  Another lovely performance on this disc is “I Denna Ljuva Sommartid,” arranged by Swedish composer and conductor Anders Öhrwall.

The 2-CD set provides lucky listeners with almost 100 minutes of pure pleasure from this clever combination of great singing and amusing stories that will warm your heart and please your ears. So, go to the VocalEssence website, and get it right away so you can start appreciating the great partnership that Philip Brunelle and Garrison Keillor have sustained for many years.  Choral music enthusiasts as well as the national radio audiences have been the recipients of their great gifts.  Music and humor have never been this much fun before, and may not be again until the next CD from these talented performers appears. 

Tracklist, Disc 1:  Song of the Sons of Bernie, A Word about Schubert (An die Musik, Hymn to Potatoes), Ave Maria, Dutch Calvinism: The T.U.L.I.P. Doctrine (Our Faithful God, We Gather Together, Doxology), Come Live with Me and Be My Love, Brahms in Love (Wiegenlied, Liebeslieder Walzer), Two Folk Songs (Y Bore Glas, I Denna Ljuva Sommartid, The “Shenandoah” Syndrome, Julia. 

Tracklist, Disc 2:  The Runaway Choir (Spring, the Sweet Spring, Sugar Sugar, Aquarius, Mandy, Bohemian Rhapsody,, Karma Chameleon, Copacabana, Sunshine on My Shoulders, Memory), Norwegian Independence (Kan Du Glemme Gamle Norge, Serenade, Landkjenning, Aftensolen), Holy Trinity Lutheran Seeks Music Director, Beulah Land, The Choral News from Lake Wobegon (Now Thank We All Our God, Sanctus, America the Beautiful, April Is in My Mistress’s Face, Hymn to the Trinity), Something, Spring Fever

– Ann Stahmer

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