From Dead English Kings to Debussy to the Minneapolis Baroque

At the Basilica of St. Mary, VocalEssence joins British-born composer and pianist Stephen Hough for music inspired by the inexplicable

Inside London’s Westminster Cathedral, you might hear the dead horror of Gregorian chanting.

Or: birdsong polyphony, Renaissance style. Either would inflate the church with echo—through all its neo-Byzantine arches.

And you might feel an American jealousy. Jealousy of the history steeping centuries of European cities. Places such as Westminster Abbey house the remains of more than 3,000 queens, poets, scientists, musicians. One anonymously interred, the Unknown Warrior, receives pilgrimages. Romantic, many hundreds of years old. But that’s Westminster Abbey. The echoing Westminster Cathedral actually dates back about as far as Minneapolis’ own Basilica of St. Mary.

And for pianist and composer Stephen Hough, what’s crucial about Westminster Cathedral is not age but the sound it produces. He composed the choral piece Missa Mirabilis (or Miracle Mass) bearing the resonance of church space in mind. Bringing the Mass to the Basilica of St. Mary on April 22, VocalEssence director Philip Brunelle points out that St. Paul’s Baroque sanctuary, the first basilica in the U.S., shares something else with Westminster Cathedral—something other than a history beginning as recently as the late nineteenth century.

“The basilica and Westminster Cathedral really fit the same kind of acoustic [Hough] was thinking of,” Brunelle says. 

“During moments in which the sound dies away—that beautiful thought of silence—you really don’t rush,” he explains. “You can hear these beautiful sounds coming forth. With the pipe organ and the voices, it’s not a jumble; they work with each other.”

The VocalEssence choir will fill the front of the basilica for a concert that features Hough himself on piano. British-born Hough returns to Minnesota after a couple dozen performances with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra over the past 20 years.

Missa Mirabilis sees Hough connecting with VocalEssence and his friend Brunelle on a personal level. Hough composed some of the Mass after a serious car crash. “I stepped out of the one untouched door in my completely mangled car with my Mass manuscript and my body intact,” he says in a press release, recounting how the notion of “miracle”—something inexplicable—came to mind.

Hough will flank VocalEssence with solo piano pieces by Claude Debussy to provide a contrast he can’t quite articulate. “It’s difficult to put things to word about music, but when you hear Debussy, it’s a different aesthetic [than the Mass], although not without meeting points,” Hough says.

On choosing Hough, Brunelle notes a standard similarly hard to grasp: “Looking for music—particularly music for the basilica—you’re looking for a timelessness about it.”

That’s why, during those thoughts of silence on Saturday, the basilica might die away. In its place: something neo-Byzantine, something ancient, something unknown.

Miracle Mass
Saturday, April 22, 7 p.m.
Basilica of St. Mary, 88 17th St. N., Minneapolis