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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Philip Brunelle

Philip Brunelle

The beaten track is not always the place to find the prettiest flowers," wrote the late Sir Peter Pears, one of our century's great singers and life companion of Benjamin Britten. He might have been referring to the musical track that connects the world's lofty capitals and attracts the superstars of all media. And the prettiest flowers may well have come to mind when he unexpectedly found so high a level of music-making in Minnesota's Twin Cities. Someone no doubt will have told Pears that music at its best had been composed, performed, and listened to in the area for many years. Minneapolis-St. Paul may be many miles off the jet-set course in terms of hoopla and hucksterism, but no one who has been there long enough to listen will ever think of it as musically provincial, unimaginative, or second-rate. Largely responsible for this excellence is a 46-year-old, baldish, bearded, bespectacled, ramrod-backed and enthusiastically beaming dynamo named Philip Brunelle.

In an age that has canonized a handful of glamorous maestros who rocket round the globe, perennial Great Guests gracing the podiums of the Great Operas and Orchestras, stopping only long enough for a television production here or a recording session there, Brunelle has chosen a drastically different path. A native Minnesotan, he is very much part of a social fabric, and his contribution to the musical arts of the region is as central to him, as genuinely grass-roots, as was that of, say, Haydn to Esterházy. Unlike Haydn, Brunelle doesn't compose. It is just about the only musical discipline he does not pursue. One would be hard-put to find a more versatile musician.

To people in the area, Philip Brunelle needs no introduction. He is something of a local hero, ubiquitous wherever music — regardless of style or medium — is made. Having been widely interviewed and amply, even colorfully described by the region's media, he is affectionately regarded by many as Minnesota's Mr. Music. The second of five children, he was born in 1943 to a Protestant minister father and a vibrant music buff mother. He pinpoints his lifelong involvement with music to a specific event. When he was six in Austin, Minn., he was taken to his first concert, Handel's Messiah. That year all he wanted for Christmas was a vocal score. (It was to be his primer for the elements of music he still regards as beautiful.) Another Christmas, when he was in the eighth grade, was to have a more sobering, if equally shaping, effect on the youngster's development. His father suddenly died, leaving his 41-year-old wife, Clarice, the oldest boy in 10th grade, Philip, another boy, a two-yearold girl, and an eleven-month-old baby. Hardworking and determined as Clarice Brunelle was, it is clear that the Brunelle kids were pressed into service early on and imbued with a sense of participation and commitment.

Philip began studying piano when he was four. He was a boy soprano until his voice changed, added the whole spectrum of percussion instruments by the time he was ten, and plunged into serious organ studies when his legs were long enough to reach the pedals. As a high school freshman, he got his first church organist job and first tasted the joy of putting his passion to revenue-producing work. It was then that he began to dream of being a conductor.

To observe Brunelle today, however, is not like watching one of the international music directors who occupy the world's prestigious posts. Instead of doing one thing — conducting — in many places, Brunelle has chosen to concentrate on a specific geographical area, but here are some of the things he does there: he is the founder and music director of the Plymouth Music Series; he is choirmaster and organist at the Plymouth Congregational Church; he is artistic director of the Midsummer Music Festival; he gives organ recitals regularly; he improvises piano accompaniments at silent movies for the Walker Art Center; he has established an excellent recording series featuring the Plymouth Festival Chorus and Orchestra which he conducts — its most recent release, Benjamin Britten's opera Paul Bunyan won the British Gramophone Award, England's most coveted distinction for classical music; he writes a monthly column for The American Organist; he edits choral music for such publishers as Boosey & Hawkes, Walton and Presser; he serves on innumerable arts panels; and he is a popular guest lecturer at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey and elsewhere.

And that's a partial list of only what he's been doing lately. Having been the youngest member of the Minnesota Orchestra — he was a percussionist and pianist for five years — he became music director of the Minnesota Opera in 1969, a post he was to hold for 17 seasons. (He left in 1985, partly to free himself for other things, partly because of differences with a new management not as committed to local talent.) During that extraordinary tenure, he conducted both standard and modem repertory, the latter including world premiere productions of Dominick Argento's A Waterbird Talk, Postcard from Morocco, and The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, Libby Larsen's Tumbledown-Dick, William Mayer's A Death in the Family, Eric Stokes's The Jealous Cellist, Conrad Susa's Black River and Transformations, and Robert Ward's Claudia Legare.

Radio listeners throughout America associate Brunelle with a different venue. He made over 100 appearances on Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" between 1974 and 1987, rejoining that folk phenomenon last year in a concert entitled "Lake Wobegon Revisited."

Since relinquishing his duties with the Minnesota Opera, Brunelle has been identified abroad as a unique resource. He made his European conducting debut in 1983, conducting Argento's A Waterbird Talk at the Aldeburgh Festival. Three years later, he led that composer's full-length opera, The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, at the Gothenburg Opera in Sweden, the first engagement in an ongoing and mutually rewarding relationship with several of that country's music establishments. "I've never applied for anything in my life," he said, chuckling at the recollection of the Swedish connection. Eskil Hemberg had just been appointed head of the Gothenburg Opera and immediately invited Brunelle to conduct there, having known him and his work since he heard him accompany a choir on a European tour some 25 years earlier. (Now Hemberg is general manager of the Royal Opera in Stockholm at which Brunelle made his debut this season.) Next on the schedule is a production of Josef Martin Kraus's Singspiel, Soliman den II [1789] at Drottningholm, the charming palace near Stockholm. [Originally built in 1754, it burned down and was rebuilt 1764-6. Since 1948 it has been used for summer seasons of opera for which the most authentic costumes and sets are used. Much of the original stage machinery is still in use.] "You can definitely hear similarities to Mozart. It's very much like Abduction."

Brunelle muses on some of the differences he perceives in American and European attitudes on the musical past. "One of the things that's fascinating — I noticed it with England and certainly with Sweden — is the way in which people comfortably blend the new with old folk songs. In America, we don't feel comfortable acknowledging our folk tradition within the concert media. We'd rather look for something newer, Broadway or pop or whatever. Because we are such a unique melting pot, such a discovery place, we always tend to look towards tomorrow rather than embracing what has occurred before. But the Europeans seem to be equally at home with both traditions. One often thinks of the Swedes as being so modern and forward-looking, but there's also a great link with the past, a real nostalgia. On the other hand, take Christmas music. We're the ones that love Christmas carols from every part of the world. But you go to any of those countries and, with the exception of the few pop carols that the media have created, they don't even know the carols of the country next to them. When I asked in Sweden about a Danish carol, no one had ever heard it. But they knew their own carols backward and forward.

"Perhaps the Europeans are more conservators, while we are disposers. We tend to throw out everything, once we're finished with it. But what does that do to our heritage? What about MacDowell — what a wonderful soul! — or Horatio Parker or John Philip Sousa? I don't think one should make dividing lines between the Broadway-type and the Orchestra Hall type of composer. Both come with an enormous amount of talent and musicianship. One should accept great music wherever it is. But the divisions run deep. Critics tend to review either one thing or another, not both. Unfortunately, there aren't too many Virgil Thomsons around anymore. But by and large, it has been the academic community that has taken too rigid a view on what is, and what is not, music. We don't have the degree of cross-fertilization that we really need. Just think back to the days when people started singing hymns. How did they ever find melodies to go with the words? Well, they'd just borrow pop songs. That's, after all, what Martin Luther did."

It is this idea of "cross-fertilization" that seems to show up wherever Brunelle expends his energies. Take, for example, the AGO 90th-Anniversary Anthology of American Organ Music that Brunelle compiled and edited for Oxford University Press. It is a salute to the American composer, but it is more than that. It is totally devoid of polemics, a handsome and sweeping presentation of the broad gamut of contemporary organ composition, with works by such well-known composers as Argento, Copland, Creston, Persichetti, Pinkham, Rorem, Schuller, Conrad Susa and Virgil Thomson side by side with excellent works of lesser-known composers. In his eloquent introduction, Brunelle speaks of "the diversity of styles that is such an important part of the American compositional fabric." If there is anything that turns Brunelle on almost as much as music itself, it is diversity.

Of course, his role in music-making is the perfect reflection of that pluralistic disposition. "Early in life I started to find all this wonderful music out there. There was so much of it that people don't know, and I began to view my role as an interpreter, disseminator, enthusiast. The only `composing' I have done since is as an improvisor on the organ and for silent movies. My baptism as a movie accompanist couldn't have been grander. I was summoned as a last-minute substitute for a fivehour film on Napoleon that I had never seen. So after I finished my La Bohéme rehearsal in the afternoon, I went to the Walker Art Center with my few scribbled notes and the information that Honegger had done the original score, and I played from 7 to midnight."

What is, for ordinary folks, most staggering is the realization that Brunelle's musical activities account for little more than half of his waking hours. The rest is taken up with administrative work, with initiating new ideas and projects, with getting together squadrons of dedicated collaborators in whom he has instilled an unusual degree of commitment and enthusiasm, and then putting plans into practical effect. How is it done? "It does help a lot when you don't need too much sleep. My norm is about four, which gives me 20 hours to work with, and that's a real boon. Also, I'm a quick study and I can study scores anywhere. My study time is either very early in the morning or late at night when most folks have finished bothering me. And when you have an idea, sometimes it's quicker to make it materialize yourself rather than trying to stimulate others to seeing your vision."

Brunelle feels that there are those who really want people to do one thing and stick to it, who have problems with personalities that are engaged on a great variety of fronts. "But that's their problem," he says. "I'm not, after all, the first person in music history to have a multitude of things going. So, it's difficult to categorize me. I always knew that, as a keyboard person, I could keep most actively involved with music for the voice. There's this incredible wealth of music in the sacred repertoire that accounts for the vast majority of existing choral music. And I was asked to succeed Arthur Jennings and to become this century's third organist at Plymouth Congregational Church. That was just the time that I left the Minnesota Orchestra, where I had been first as percussionist and then as pianist, to go to the Minnesota Opera. So you see, I just naturally was doing different things from the beginning. Twenty years ago, I outlined what I wanted to do in establishing the Plymouth Music Series. I told them there was something missing in the Twin Cities, that no one was doing works for chorus and orchestra outside of a few war horses. One of the Board members said, `Well, we can't quite imagine what this means in terms of repertoire, but we believe in you."' And they have continued to believe in him through performances of more than 70 composers of this century, eight Handel oratorios, and a great gamut of music from antiquity to the present. At the very beginning, singers came from the church choir, but the group soon grew in stature and professionalism, and the church suggested that they incorporate as an entirely autonomous organization. While, at the outset, concerts were given in the church, this now depends on the vehicle, and performances might be held at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis or the Ordway Music Theatre or the Cathedral in St. Paul or elsewhere depending on the space best suited to the music.

Never long out of mind or absent from conversation is Brunelle's family. His flower — designer wife Carolyn — she had been an art major at schoolis clearly his emotional underpinning. She is a caring but no-nonsense woman with a rare balance of supportiveness and skepticism against a background of good humor, all of which come in handy not only vis-á-vis Philip's work but also on the family's many camping expeditions. The couple have three highly gifted children, Tim (who is just taking a "sabbatical" from college), Chris (a senior at Carleton College with a double major in music and Latin/Greek), and Elise (a high school senior who has "an incredible interest in human issues" and is an excellent writer).

We asked Philip Brunelle about the pros and cons of being so closely identified with a given region or community. He gave the cons first, seemingly wanting to get them out of the way so as not to appear Pollyannaish. "You are sometimes taken for granted, like a prophet without honor. If you are local, there's often the feeling that someone from the outside must be better qualified. Besides, if you were so good, why would you stick around and not go to New York or London or Paris? Unfortunately, there's always the inability of a few to recognize talent within the community, the thought that it has to go away before it can come back.

"But the pros are equally self-evident. One of my priorities has always been my family. I wanted my three terrific children raised in a wonderful environment, and there is no question that the Twin Cities is that. And I wanted to be there and not be an absentee father, at least most of the time. One of my greatest thrills, also, has been to see how people, more and more, have been willing to take a risk with music, of coming to concerts of music they've never heard before, of saying `Well, Brunelle's got a good track record. We never even heard of this composer he's got on for tonight, but let's see what he's come up with this time.' It's hard for people to take a risk. We want to do safe things in life and here's someone who asks people to take a risk, but he guarantees quality of performance and of the work. I'm not guaranteeing that they will love every piece equally, but what a thrill when they come back and say `Where has this piece been?' I'll give you an example: I did the first performance here in over 50 years of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. When they asked me where the piece had been all these years, I told them it had been sitting right here waiting for a performance! Audiences are growing larger. When they ask how I can top myself next year, I tell them that it's not a matter of topping myself but of expanding this wealth of repertoire that they are coming to know."

When St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Music on him in March, 1988, the simple ceremony mirrored well the rich life of Philip Brunelle, Musician. It began with remarks from the College's administration, there was music and the conferring of the degree by the music faculty, Brunelle spoke with his customary verve, and the program ended with a benediction.

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