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Vocalessence Witness - Got The Saint Louis Blues / Brunelle


Release Date: 02/10/2004 
Label:  Clarion   Catalog #: 907   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  W.C. HandyHenry Thacker BurleighFlorence Beatrice PriceR. Nathaniel Dett,   ... 
Performer:  Jearlyn SteeleThomas LarsonSteve BurgerPaul Shaw,   ... 
Conductor:  Philip Brunelle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  VocalEssence Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 7 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Many listeners are familiar with the excellent Witness series issued on Collins Classics in the 1990s. Its mission was to "showcase music of trailblazing African American composers", with a particular focus on choral works, but with a substantial inclusion of instrumental/orchestral pieces as well. Originating from concert programs presented in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area in the early 1990s by conductor Philip Brunelle and his then-named Plymouth Music Series (now VocalEssence), Witness and the subsequent recordings brought to greater public attention the work of "Harlem Renaissance" composers of the 1920s and '30s, extending into the modern era with a disc devoted to "Music of today's black composers". Read more Along with Clarion's reissue this month of those first three discs (with new packaging and disc titles) comes this brand new release--the long-delayed completion of the original four-disc project.


The disc's title reflects the blues/jazz-oriented flavor of some of the selections, notably the Hall Johnson choral arrangement of William Handy's Saint Louis Blues, led by soprano Jearlyn Steele's exuberant and colorful solo. Edmund Thornton Jenkins contributes an extraordinary piece of orchestral writing--Charlestonia: Folk Rhapsody for Orchestra No. 1--whose evocation of a time and place in the black South both predates and foreshadows the premise for Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess. It deserves widespread inclusion on concert programs. Likewise, James P. Johnson offers a work for piano and orchestra--Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody--that "celebrates a black community on the outskirts of Savannah" and not only reminds us of Gershwin's own Rhapsody (written three years earlier) but again draws our attention to the significance of black experience and character as vital material for artistic expression of American life.


The majority of the rest of the disc is devoted to choral pieces by Harry T. Burleigh--O Southland; Ethiopia's Paean to Exaltation--and Nathaniel Dett, whose Listen to the Lambs is one of the classics of African-American music. Dett's The Chariot Jubilee, an extended choral work based on the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, is another impressive attention-grabber, as is the closing a cappella Ave Maria, also by Dett. This last piece, written for a competition in 1914, shows an assured sensitivity to the text and a commanding grasp of choral technique--qualities that should confirm its presence in the repertoire of competent choirs everywhere.


The program, which includes performances of works not available anywhere else, makes essential listening for all choral music fans. The repertoire is not only historically important but also is of high musical value. The choir sings with a rich, full-bodied, full-vibrato-ed American sound that's very well-balanced and warm-toned. The ensemble technique is superb, the podium leadership exemplary. My only complaint is an oddly focused recording perspective that skews balances between solo instruments and voices and occasionally dulls the impact of the larger choral/orchestral forces. Overall, this doesn't prove a major drawback--the musical values are too great--and we're left in grateful appreciation for the forces behind a project that gives world-class treatment and attention to these deserving scores. Don't miss this. [2/21/2004]
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com Read less

Works on This Recording

1. St. Louis Blues by W.C. Handy
Performer:  Jearlyn Steele (Soprano), Thomas Larson (Tenor)
Conductor:  Philip Brunelle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  VocalEssence Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1914; USA 
Notes: Arranger: Hall Johnson. 
2. O Southland by Henry Thacker Burleigh
Conductor:  Philip Brunelle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  VocalEssence Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
3. Song for Snow by Florence Beatrice Price
Conductor:  Philip Brunelle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  VocalEssence Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1930; USA 
4. The Moon Bridge by Florence Beatrice Price
Conductor:  Philip Brunelle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  VocalEssence Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1930 
5. Listen to the lambs by R. Nathaniel Dett
Performer:  Steve Burger (Baritone)
Conductor:  Philip Brunelle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  VocalEssence Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1923; USA 
6. Ethiopia's Paean to Exaltation by Henry Thacker Burleigh
Conductor:  Philip Brunelle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  VocalEssence Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1921; USA 
7. Poor Mourner's Got a-Home at Last by Carl Rossini Diton
Conductor:  Philip Brunelle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  VocalEssence Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1914; USA 
8. Yamekraw by James P. Johnson
Performer:  Paul Shaw ()
Conductor:  Philip Brunelle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  VocalEssence Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1927; USA 
Notes: Arranger: William Grant Still. 
9. The Chariot Jubilee by R. Nathaniel Dett
Performer:  Michael Forest (Tenor)
Conductor:  Philip Brunelle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  VocalEssence Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1921; USA 
Notes: Arranger: Hale Smith. 
10. Charlestonia by Edmund Thornton Jenkins
Conductor:  Philip Brunelle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  VocalEssence Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Notes: This work was reconstructed by Vincent Plush in 1997. 
11. Ave Maria by R. Nathaniel Dett
Performer:  Ryan French (Baritone)
Conductor:  Philip Brunelle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  VocalEssence Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 

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