Monday, January 26, 2009

Ensemble Singers Bus Activitiy: Try to Stump Suzie

For anyone that has been following the blog, you've surely noticed that our beloved tour guide Suzie was mentioned repeatedly. In addition to significantly broadening our vocabulary to include such gems as "nattering on," "twittle," "to catch you out," "three line whip," "flip," "mouldering," "sosseled," and so many others, we discovered that like Philip Brunelle, Suzie is full of (always interesting and occasionally useless) trivia. We decided it might be fun to develop a series of “Stump Suzie” questions.

Although she was too shy to write a blog for us, we wanted to share the answers to a few of the questions we asked Suzie (shown on the left), so that you might have a chance to get to know our truly excellent and always entertaining guide a little bit better.

But first, Suzie’s reaction to all of this higgledy-piggledy -“What has this got to do with being a British tour guide," she asks, "it would have been MUCH more to the point if we’d had a quiz on all the things I’ve taught you!”

Q: What is the specific gravity of platinum?
Suzie: I’ve absolutely no idea!

Q: Name all of the children in “The Brady Bunch?”
Suzie: I’ve never even heard of them!

Q: How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a wood chuck could chuck wood?
Suzie: It depends how big of a chip he has on his shoulder.

Q: What is your favorite store on Oxford Street?
Suzie: FCUK. MUCH laughter ensued as Suzie repeatedly banned us from shopping on this “horrible” street. (FCUK stands for French Connection United Kingdom…but most people misread the acronym)

Q: Where does the word “loo” originate?
Suzie offered a long extended answer that has something to do with the French version of “water closet” but it got too long for me to follow…

Q: How old is the tube?
Suzie: The Piccadilly line dates back to the 1860’s.

Q: Why are the beds in England so short?
Suzie: Since Shakespeare’s day, we’re all afraid we’ll die in the night, so we all sit up when we sleep!

Q: Why aren’t the public restrooms heated?
Suzie: Because there is a shortage of them and we don’t want people to get too comfortable and stay.

Q: The present queen aside, for which member of the royal family do you personally hold the most affection?
Suzie: Prince Charles, with whom she has shared five dances.

After being an incredibly good sport throughout all of the questions, Suzie (true to form) informed us that it was...National Bird Watching Day!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

One final performance

The following blog post was written by VocalEssence Managing Director Mary Ann Pulk.

Yesterday, the Ensemble Singers began their final day in England in Cambridge after a fabulous concert at King’s College. As we drove back to London, we got our final look at the beautiful countryside and incredibly green grass – something we won’t see for quite a while back in Minnesota.

We arrived in London at Notting Hill’s Portobello Road Market. There were wall to wall people on Saturday morning and every antique you could possibly imagine. While looking for Hugh Grant, just about everyone bought last minute treasures. Then, it was on to the BBC studios at Maida Vale for rehearsal with the BBC Singers—an amazing group of 24 artists who are a full time professional choir—one of the few like it in the world.

Our collaboration was on the occasion of Stephen Cleobury’s 60th birthday, who is their conductor laureate. The BBC choir sang three selections by British composers Giles Swayne, Frances Grier and Edward Cowie, followed by four premieres especially commissioned for the celebrated. Represented in this group were a number of composers VocalEssence has performed and commissioned over the years including Gabriel Jackson, Bob Chilcott, Judith Bingham and Judith Weir.

Performing Aaron Kernis, Eric Whitacre and a rousing spiritual by Moses Hogan, the Ensemble Singers wowed the usually reserved Brits who responded enthusiastically to our singers and set the stage for the final work with the combined choirs, Richard Strauss’s Deutsche Motette. With over 60 singers and four soloists performing a vocal high-wire act, the work is a veritable “wall of sound!” It was a once in a lifetime experience for most of our singers and the audience, as Strauss treats the voices like a symphony orchestra to amazing effect—and the audience loved it! Afterward, we all celebrated at a reception where it was wonderful to hear the mutual admiration between the two groups of singers. Then it was back to the hotel for food, drink and general rejoicing! It was an amazing trip for all of us and the Ensemble Singers performed six absolutely stellar concerts! (You can view photos of our final day on our photo blog.) Now, back to snowy Minnesota…

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Magical Day

The following blog was written by Anna George Meek, a third year Ensemble Singer.

In spitting rain this morning, we traveled through fen country to Ely Cathedral, England’s fifth largest; today it was filled with the intoxicating aromas of white roses and lilies for the 900th anniversary of the diocese. 900 years! It’s hard to wrap our minds around the enormity of where we’ve been, and what we’ve had the privilege to do.

The Cathedral's Lady Chapel, where we sang, has white walls crowned with carvings so intricate, they turn stone to lace. Or should I say ice? We could see our breath inside, so we performed in scarves and coats and gloves. Yours truly wore her corduroy pants under concert dress. But the acoustics were exquisite. And if all this weren’t magical enough, John Rutter (yes, THE John Rutter) recorded the performance for us, as a gift.

The sun came out for our ride back to Cambridge where we had a free afternoon to rest up for the concert we’ve all been looking forward to--in King’s College Chapel.

If you’ve never sung in King’s College Chapel before, imagine touching a match to a gas stove—just one note, and our voices lit the air and blazed. Tonight, the spirituals were the concert’s highlight. The group was tight, we were high with the excitement of where we were, and Philip beamed that high-wattage grin only Philip has. When the vaulted fan ceiling finally stopped ringing, the audience erupted in whistles and cheers. Us, we haven’t stopped ringing yet.

Some of us walked out with an audience member who was glowing about the concert. “It was cloudy before, and now the stars have come out,” he said smiling at us. “Just for you!”

If that’s not everything we came for, I don’t know what is.

Don't miss today's photo blog for more photos from the Ely Cathedral, King's College Chapel and our other adventures!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Death on wheels..."

This is Diane Fernald writing to you from the historic town of Cambridge where, incidentally, the University is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year!

We left London this morning and had a drizzly, scenic drive to East Anglia. Along the way, we stopped at one of only two cemeteries to hold American service men and women who served as crew members of British-based American aircraft from WWII.

Upon our arrival, some of us opted to visit the very impressive Fitzwilliam Museum. We were thrilled to see works by Rembrandt, Picasso, Da Vinci, and William Blake. As we wandered through Cambridge, we managed not to be run over by the thousands of college students on bicycles, the preferred way of getting around town. Suzie warned us today, “those bicyclists…they are DEATH on wheels!”

A destination for many of us was Emmanuel College, known as “Emma” to the locals. Several varieties of exotic-looking ducks were swimming in the school’s pond. A local music shop which carried some excellent used British music was a popular choice for many of the singers.

The wife of Stephen Cleobury (Director of the BBC Singers) gave us a tour of King’s College Chapel in the afternoon, which coincided with the choir rehearsing for the Choral Evensong. The choir sang music of Victoria and the sound was truly ephemeral. After supper in the college dining room (think Hogwarts), we headed over to the Chapel and had a demanding rehearsal with Stephen Cleobury. For many of us, sitting in King’s College Chapel listening to Evensong may have been a once in a lifetime evening…but tomorrow WE will have the rare and exciting opportunity to share our beautiful music there! Check out our photo diary for today!

Onward to Cambridge

The following blog was written by Anders Eckman, a third year Ensemble Singer.

Hello blogfollowers! I write to you from the last row of the bus (or coach as Suzie calls it) as we depart for Cambridge and King’s College. We are packed to the brim and it is higgledy-piggledy, quite frankly. We have a two hour trip ahead of us. Just as soon as we get used to driving on the left hand side of the road and looking right so as not to be amputated by oncoming traffic, we’ll be back in the U.S. – I’m not recommending anyone rides in my car as a passenger for a good week’s time.

We’ve had a fantastic last three days in London. Just yesterday we had a very smart noontime concert at St. Giles Cripplegate in Central London. I think we must be generating some buzz because our audiences seem to be becoming more sizable and responsive at every concert we give.

With a free remainder of the afternoon, a small group of us took in a proper high tea at Fortnum and Mason, a large department store near Piccadilly Circus. Thought it was 40 pounds a head, it is an experience not to be missed while one is in London. Beyond the tea, it involved cucumber and salmon sandwiches, scones, clotted cream, jam, bite size pastries, and a delicious entrĂ©e of Welsh Rarebit and Back Bacon. Needless to say, it constitutes a meal. We enjoyed ourselves so thoroughly that we are serious about bringing this British tradition back to the states with us. We’ll see if Philip gives us long enough breaks during our rehearsals to fit in a high tea every Tuesday afternoon.

I don’t think we’re ready to come back home just yet—but some of the other things that have kept us busy in London are an insider’s tour of Westminster Abbey (spooky), discount shopping in Oxford Circus (shhh! Don’t tell Suzie!) and holey-poleying from pub to pub (where some of us have gotten a bit sosseled on occasion.)

Time to sign off as a rousing game of British Trivial Pursuit is commencing on the coach! Don't miss yesterday's photo diary!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Celebration

The following post was written by VocalEssence Founder and Artistic Director Philip Brunelle.

It has been a very exciting day in London—people are really keen to celebrate our inauguration. Once someone knows you are from the USA they offer hardy congratulations and extend best wishes for success to President Obama. It is very effusive—not typical English reserve!

Our all-American repertoire concert was sung beautifully by the Ensemble Singers (as they have sung throughout the tour—really extraordinary singing!) I felt this evening an extra sense of emotion in the singing as they performed this music, and thought of the events in Washington D.C.

We began with music from Revolutionary War times by William Billings and then jumped to the present with Minnesota composers Stephen Paulus and Brent Michael Davids; folks were fascinated by the tonal choral sounds in Davids’ Native American music. The first half of the concert included music by Rorem, Copland, Stephen Foster, and Eric Whitacre. It was a marvelous study in contrasts and the audience loved it!

For the second half, we presented music by Bernstein, some spirituals, and folk song settings. We closed the concert with a special celebration of the inauguration by singing words of Thomas Jefferson (music of Randall Thompson), the melody “America” (which the Brits know as “God Save the Queen”) with sweet, nostalgic words by Garrison Keillor, and finally concluded with words and music harkening back to the time of Abraham Lincoln: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” What a celebration! Be sure to check out today's photo diary!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Merry old London town

The following post is by Nick Barootian, who is a first year Ensemble Singer.

Having spent far too little time in Birmingham, this morning the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers hopped in our coach, cracked the whip, and headed off to spend a few days in merry old London town. Upon arrival in the Foggy City we received a brief driving tour from Suzie, our endlessly gracious tutor in British culture. (Today we learned that "higgledy-piggledy" means something like "haphazard; a little caddy-wumpus.)" We also saw the House of Parliament and the famous clock tower Big Ben. Near this, among other things, stand bronze statues of Winston Churchill....and Abraham Lincoln! The average Brit is impressively in-touch with American politics. I saw a television news article this morning referring to Martin Luther King Jr. And they are all tuning in for the inauguration tomorrow!

After this brief tour, we stopped for lunch, and to explore Covent Garden (which is not a garden at all--it's more like a cobbled shopping district). We re-grouped to attend high tea at the Carlton Club upon the invitation of our generous friends Frieda and Verne Heinrich. The Carlton Club originated as a gathering facility for the members of the conservative party Tories in 1832, and it continues to be the elite conservative club of England. We are grateful to the Heinrichs for the extraordinary opportunity to experience the life of the British upper-crust for an afternoon.

When tea was over, VocalEssence Ensemble Singers dispersed, some catching a performance of Les Miserables, others experiencing the sacred choral sounds of Evensong at Westminster Abbey. Still others formed a representation of the Ensemble Singers that went with Maestro Brunelle to the BBC radio station for a live radio performance on the classical music program "In Tune" with the ever-so-charming Sean Rafferty. We sang several American songs for Mr. Rafferty, and he especially loved our rendition of that old Shaker tune "Simple Gifts." For the next six days, you can listen online to our "In Tune" performance--we sang about 70 minutes in to the program. At the end of a very full day in bustling London town, I guess the simple things (like tea and hymn tunes) are sometimes still the best. Don't miss the photo diary for images of all of today's adventures!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A pleasant surprise...

The following blog was written by Eric Bartlett, who is in his third year as an Ensemble Singer.

With the sunlit spires of Oxford in our rearview mirror, the Ensemble Singers trundled off to Birmingham today. At first, that thought horrified me. We were leaving the land of Tolkien and Lewis, a global center of culture, history, and the cognitive elite. We were leaving a town whose university claims a history of almost 900 years, and is the only place in England that refers to the Thames River as “The Isis.” (They do so to remind the world that the Thames’ original name was “Thamisis” in Latin. Nerd Alert!) From there, we were heading to (what I thought) was the English version of Detroit. I had always assumed that Birmingham, like Detroit, was essentially a post-war Rust Belt city; a place with large sections of urban blight, its glory days behind it. I was wrong. The Germans heavily bombed Birmingham during World War II, and the city was rebuilt in the late 40s and early 50s. Birmingham today is a beautiful and modern city with a downtown area along its canal that makes one think more of Vancouver or Seattle than of a city in The Midlands. We sang in the Birmingham Town Hall, an acoustically bright and forgiving space that has premiered many famous works in its 175 year history. (View photos of the Birmingham Town Hall and our other adventures in today's photo journal.) Chief among them is probably Mendelssohn’s Elijah—Mendelssohn was once the Town Hall organist! It was a great honor to perform there, and we are looking forward to continuing on with this wonderful tour.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The newest addition to "concert attire..."

The following blog was written by Karen Wilkerson, who is in her rookie season singing with the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers.

We awoke to the sun in Oxford today and had a virtually free day to wander around this ancient city. At our full English breakfast, we heard the stories of more adventurous singers who had ventured out the night before.

This morning, a group of us walked to Christ Church—a fascinating combination of cathedral and parish church, which blends the gothic and roman styles of architecture. Beyond that, our little group splintered off and found all manner of adventure. Robert Smith, baritone extraordinaire and I continued on to seek out libraries, and other chapels from the 38 colleges which comprise Oxford University. I wasn’t prepared to see grass growing, and flowers blooming along side ancient sites!

At the Bodleian Library, we saw Handel’s original conductor’s score of Messiah, and the scratched out hymn from the British comedy “The Vicar of Dibley.” Our sustenance consisted of clotted cream and jam on scones with tea. The afternoon ended by finding our way into a cloister, and then the very dark and spooky chapel of New College, where the organ was playing and only candlelight lit our path.

Our first performance was tonight at The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The women had an extra touch of elegance by adding long underwear to their singing attire—these church venues do not heat their spaces! The concert included mostly American music and was a hit—including an encore! It was a wonderful beginning to our trip. Check out today's photo diary for photos from the performance - and other Oxford adventures. And—as an addendum, I am currently in our hotel bar surrounded by my comrades and drinking a Guinness! Life is good!

Friday, January 16, 2009

After 4,270 miles--we arrived!

The following is a post from VocalEssence Ensemble Singer Brock Metzger, who is enjoying his fourth year performing with the group.

Greetings from England! My name is Brock Metzger and I am honored to post the first blog from “the road!” Today has been a long and exciting day, and I am happy to report that all of the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers (and our luggage) made it safe and sound.

After arriving at Heathrow Airport, we met our tour guides – Anna and Suzie, loaded onto the coach, and made our way to Oxford! My first trip to England has been full of new experiences already, including the door to the coach being on the “wrong” side. En route, Suzie kept us thoroughly entertained with some history of the country and other insightful commentary—including new words and phrases like “nattering on” (going on) and “face flannel” (washcloth).

After lunch in Oxford, we had our first rehearsal at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, where our first concert takes place on Saturday. The church is beautiful and is a treat to sing in, but it was so cold inside that many of us wore our coats throughout the rehearsal. Philip Brunelle had warned us that although the temperature is higher than Minnesota, England offers a “different type” of cold. The wet air makes it feel very cold and I will definitely wear thicker socks tomorrow!

It seems that I have been “nattering on” for awhile and so I will sign off. A number of us are heading out to a local pub for a chance to sample the local scene. Don't forget to check out our photo diary of today's events! Until next time—cheerio!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Our Inauguration Day concert on January 20 at St. John’s, Smith Square, London will be recorded for broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio the same evening in Minnesota. And that means you can listen from anywhere in the world at – click on the green Classical tab. Check out today's issue of Minnesota Public Radio's "The Classical Post" for a feature story on the broadcast!

It’s hard to get your head around this with all of the time changes, so let me elaborate. The concert, which will be professionally recorded, takes place at 7:30 pm London time (that’s 1:30 in the afternoon in MN). That means around 9:30 or 10 pm Minnesota Public Radio’s classical music host and producer John Birge, who is traveling with the Ensemble Singers, will begin editing the concert and adding his commentary. He has just a few hours to turn the project around in time and upload it to MPR for an 8 pm (Minnesota time) broadcast.

The good news is that you can listen to the concert at your Inauguration parties Tuesday night — and sing along with the Ensemble Singers on the new version of “America-2009” that Garrison Keillor has written for the occasion. We’ll even post the lyrics for you on Tuesday!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Extra, extra, read all about it!

It’s exciting to see the press coverage the England tour is generating even before the singers have boarded Thursday's flight to Heathrow. was the first to take notice with a very nice piece by David Hawley published on 23 December. He broke the news that our Inauguration Day concert on January 20 will be recorded for broadcast the same evening in Minnesota.

Star Tribune writer Graydon Royce took note of our King’s College debut in an article called “Courting the King’s.” In an interview with Philip Brunelle, he asked about the acoustics of the famous chapel, saying “history of King's College breathes in the walls.”

The biggest splash in the media so far has come from the Birmingham Post, which published a major feature piece on 13 January. “As well as giving the world such pop luminaries as Bob Dylan and Prince, the northern state of Minnesota has a reputation throughout the United States for its tradition of choral singing,” wrote Terry Grimley, noting that “the tour, which links venues as different yet iconic in their contrasting ways as King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, was arranged through director Philip Brunelle’s personal contacts in the English choral world.”

We’ll keep you posted on more press as it’s published.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Tour Press Release

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (15 October, 2008) - In January 2009, the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers and artistic director Philip Brunelle will tour England, giving six public concerts in Oxford, Birmingham, London, Cambridge and Ely.

Heralded by the London Times as "a superb American engaging group, polished, bright and brilliantly balanced" - the Grammy award nominated and Gramophone award-winning chorus has previously performed in England at the Covent Garden Festival and the Aldeburgh Festival.

The week-long tour will include an engagement in one of the world's most famous churches, King's College Chapel in Cambridge, as well an in-studio collaboration with the BBC Singers in honor of choral conductor Stephen Cleobury.

A panoramic sampling of "American Choral Masterpieces: Past, Present & Beyond," the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers will perform selections spanning three centuries of United States history, from William Billings (1746), to folksongs of the 1800s, to 20th century masters such as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Works of contemporary composers Eric Whitacre and Aaron Jay Kernis complete the programme.

Concerts include:

  • Saturday, 17 January, 19:30 - University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford
  • Sunday, 18 January, 15:00 - Birmingham Town Hall, Birmingham
  • Tuesday, 20 January, 19:30 - St. John's Smith Square, London
  • Friday, 23 January, 13:10-14:00 - Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral, Ely
  • Friday, 23 January, 19:30 - King's College Chapel, Cambridge
  • Saturday, 24 January, 19:30 - BBC Maida Vale Studio 1, London (collaboration with BBC Singers honoring Stephen Cleobury)

For press information and photographs related to these performances, please contact Jennifer Bauer at 612-547-1459 (