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Philip Brunelle — A Singer′s Perspective

Ann Schrooten

Philip Brunelle

  A Singer′s Perspective on the Paul Bunyan of Choral Music in the Land of 10,000 Choirs

 

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By Ann L. Schrooten

I suppose it was only a matter of time before Philip Brunelle, the Angler-in-Chief of Minnesota choral music, would eventually lure me into his choir like a Lake Mille Lacs Walleye to a fathead on a jigging spoon.   LIke Paul Bunyan looking over the shores of Lake Bemidji, Philip Brunelle is the other larger-than-life figure (same first and last initials, don’t you know) of all things choral in the Land of 10,000 choirs.  I’d like to tell you a tale or two about this towering figure known as Philip Brunelle and why his contributions to choral music here and around the country are as much a part of our Minnesota identity as Paul Bunyan.

First, you should understand that I share what I know about Philip Brunelle from my perspective of having sung under his direction for eight seasons as a member of the 32-voice Ensemble Singers of VocalEssence.  I have traveled with him to London, Cincinnati, Dallas, South Korea, and China and all over the state of Minnesota from Luverne to Duluth and Rochester to Alexandria.  He directed an Ensemble Singers contingent at my wedding, and I have given him my best batch of raspberry rhubarb jam at Christmas. There are plenty of talented writers around this state who could extol the achievements of one of the most enthusiastic champions of choral music our country has ever seen.  But, I would like my ACDA-MN colleagues to get a glimpse of him as seen from inside the instrument he is most fascinated with….the choir.  For it is in the relationship he fosters between himself, the singers with whom he works, and the music itself that his legendary influence is best understood.

I don’t think there is anything more wonderful than sharing a sound.  I think standing next to someone and knowing that the voice is the fragile thing it is, and knowing that someone else is sharing that sound with you, and multiplying it by many more people.  That corporate sense of what happens in coming together, breathing together, and the interpretation that follows….It is a thrill to witness this.  I don’t ever remember a rehearsal where I haven’t been excited about experiencing this communal sound.

Philip Brunelle

Philip was born into a family whose singing was nurtured by the church.  His father was a minister in the Evangelical United Brethren Church and served congregations in Waterville, Austin, and then later in Minneapolis.  It was Philip’s mother Clarice who coached him from an early age to share his crystal clear soprano voice at church functions and community gatherings.  His “calling card,” as he tells it, was The Holy City.  It wasn’t long after the family moved to Minneapolis that he entered and won the WCCO radio talent contest.  Clearly, a love for music, and an enthusiasm for sharing it with others, was a pattern established early on in Philip’s life.

When Philip was 13, his father died suddenly on Christmas day just as the family had finished Christmas devotions, leaving five children in the care of Philip’s mother.  Through hard work and sheer, yet cheerful determination, the family was able to rise above very difficult circumstances.  And though many kindnesses were certainly shown to the family, Clarice found jobs that enabled her to continue supporting the family without assistance.  One such kindness is that after the death of Philip’s father, Philip’s piano teacher at MacPhail (knowing they had no money for lessons) offered to continue teaching him for free as long as Philip did not know.  Clarice agreed to accept this generous gift and kept the secret until Philip was about to graduate from high school.  The family found a way for Philip to take up organ lessons later in his teens, studying with Arthur Jennings, who was on the faculty of the University of Minnesota and organist at Plymouth Congregational Church.

There is no doubt in Philip’s mind that his love for choral music can be directly attributed to Harry Opel at Minnehaha Academy.  Philip worked summer jobs in order to be able to attend the school.  It was there that choir director Harry Opel had established a highly regarded choral program featuring the kind of challenging repertoire and strict discipline in rehearsal that was necessary to present high school students with Bach motets and a  Handel or Mendelssohn oratorio on a regular basis.  Philip’s love for singing – and playing the piano – was nurtured there by Harry, who saw something special in Philip and took him under his wing. This personal attention from a highly respected choral director influenced Philip not only in terms of his musical development but almost certainly planted the seeds that would cause Philip to “pay it forward” in the mentoring he does to this day with young singers and composers.

There was also an annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah each year at the old Minneapolis Auditorium and Philip remembers showing up as a 9th grader and asking guest conductor Weston Noble if he could possibly be allowed to sing (Philip used the money he earned from his paper route to buy his own Messiah score) and of course, Weston said yes.  And if that weren’t daring enough, he showed up at the University of Minnesota one week to attend a presentation by Robert Shaw and Julius Herford on the Bach B Minor Mass.  Is it really any wonder then that as he approaches his 50th season as Artistic Director of VocalEssence that he is still skipping off to several different parts of the globe each year to work with choirs in Africa, Mexico, and China, just to name a few, because he is ever so curious to discover a new sound, a new culture, or a genre of music he may want to know more about?

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Philip Brunelle receiving ACDA North Central Division’s “The Weston H. Noble Award” presented by the late Weston Noble in 2012.

Most of us who work in the field of choral music know that Philip Brunelle has built an enviable reputation as an internationally-recognized choral conductor and purveyor of new choral music.  But, what many may not realize is that he is equally brilliant and often simultaneously employed as a church musician, organist, opera conductor, and orchestral musician and conductor.  A few facts:

  • Philip Brunelle was one of the youngest musicians ever to be hired by the Minnesota Orchestra.  In fact, it was at the age of 19 that he became the orchestra’s pianist and percussionist while still a student at the University of Minnesota.
  • At the age of 25, Philip Brunelle was appointed Choirmaster and Organist at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis; a position he has held for 48 years.
  • In 1969, Philip Brunelle began a seventeen year run as the Music Director of the Minnesota Opera, during which time he introduced  new operas by Dominick Argento, Conrad Susa and many others.

For those of us around in the 1960s, we may recall that the Plymouth Music Series, now known as VocalEssence, burst upon the Twin Cities arts scene in 1969 with an amazing inaugural season featuring none other than Aaron Copland as guest conductor.  But what we may not remember is everything else that Philip was embarking upon around that same time.  It is only then, that one begins to truly understand the meteoric scope of his talent, the speed with which he must have learned countless scores, and the sheer drive he must have possessed.  Here was an absolutely brilliant young musician on the move in just about every classical music sphere one could imagine, but it wasn’t Leonard Bernstein in New York City …. It was Philip Brunelle!  Minnesota’s own.

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Philip Brunelle with Aaron Copland (right) and singer Janis Hardy

One might think that with all of these commitments vying for his attention, Philip Brunelle would be something of a music-making machine, but the more complete story is that he surrounds himself with great musicians and artists and demonstrates a very personal touch with everyone from the nationally and internationally known guests with whom he collaborates to the bass in the back row who commits every Tuesday evening to singing for Philip Brunelle, along with about another 140 or so others.  Philip is the reason that many of my colleagues have devoted decades to the music and the mission of VocalEssence.  The music alone would be worth it, but it is the spirit of Maestro Brunelle that infuses the music with both joy and humanity.

When I joined the Ensemble Singers in 2008, little did I realize that my seat in the Second Soprano Section would provide me with an up close and personal view of an indomitable spirit that brought an internationally-recognized community choral organization into being, and keeps it thriving with boundless curiosity and energy.  My singing gig with Philip became something akin to graduate level coursework in the how of running such an organization, but also the why.  There are skills which Philip possesses that I am – we all are – stunned by, and then there is the character that governs the way he interacts with others that keeps us coming back for more.  I stand in awe of the skills and give thanks for the character.  These are the things that that this Soprano in the second row celebrates about Philip.

Rhythm

Philip would remark at least once each season that if he had the power to do so, he would shrink himself so that he could perch on the shoulder of every singer in his choir to serve as a personalized metronome.  This image would always elicit snickers among even the best-behaved singers, but we all knew that for the performance at hand to truly sparkle, every one of us would have to “own” the execution of rhythm; or more precisely, Philip’s rhythm.  His rhythmic chops were just another tool in his kit that gave him a fearlessness in taking on ANY piece of choral repertoire, no matter how difficult and no matter how contemporary.  Composers both established and new to the scene have trusted him to render their rhythms accurately and their tempos with freakish exactness.  “If you need to find quarter-note = 120, think of a John Philip Sousa march, and you’ll have it.”  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve employed that maxim in trying to approximate tempo markings in my day-to-day rehearsals.

Efficient

Philip Brunelle moves his musicians through a rehearsal with a combination of efficiency, good humor, and storytelling.  Rehearsals start on time and end on time.  Rehearsals are NEVER cancelled due to inclement weather, and he has never missed a rehearsal or performance due to illness.  Is this simply a long string of good luck and good genes?  I think not.  Philip wouldn’t miss a rehearsal or concert for something as trivial as a cold, or a sprained hand suffered in a fall on the winter ice during his daily run.  He himself would say there’s too much joy in making music to miss any single moment of it.  I firmly believe that music has been the magical elixir that has kept him in a state of health and humor those of us many years his junior envy.  It may be a point of pride for him to be able to claim this kind of track record, but this is not what motivates him.  It is the music to be made which propels him through each and every day, no matter where in the world he may wake up and no matter how many rehearsals, performances, meetings, or articles await his attention.

Philip Brunelle conducting a high school honor choir at Orchestra Hall
(Click the photo for a large view)

Encyclopedic Memory

There is seemingly no composer, conductor, composition, poet, or hymn; the recollection on which he can be stumped.  I have witnessed him stepping over to the piano during rehearsal and playing a musical phrase out of thin air from an opera score that he may or may not have conducted at one point to illustrate its relation to the work currently being rehearsed.  On a tour bus a few years ago, he began reciting entire verses of both well-known and obscure hymns to an interested singer.  I was impressed after a couple demonstrations, but my draw dropped when I realized that not only did he know first and last verses to almost any hymn you might throw at him, he knew EVERY verse!  A story Philip loves to tell is that when Garrison Keillor first called him in the early days of Prairie Home Companion to come play piano on the program, he challenged Philip to state how many hymns he really knew and could play by heart.  Without hesitation, Philip replied, “It’s not a matter of how many hymns I know, but how many verses of each hymn I know.”  Bam.  The man has an encyclopedic memory with regard to music and verse that is as expansive as a Paul Bunyan breakfast.

Versatility

Equally at home in front of an orchestra as a choral ensemble, or at the piano accompanying many of the Twin Cities’ most celebrated solo performers as leading the Plymouth Congregational Church congregation in the Hymn of the Day, Philip moves with ease between the worlds of the sacred and the secular, and like a gazelle between the baton and the bench.  I will never forget the first time he gathered together the orchestra for my first Welcome Christmas concert.  He was always clear in what he wanted from us as singers, but what I observed at that first combined rehearsal of chorus and orchestra was astounding.  This was a conductor I had not seen before.  The precision with which he gave cues to the instrumentalists and the efficient way in which he communicated what he wanted from them at any given moment exhibited the skills of any number of well-respected orchestral and opera conductors in the business.  His gestures shifted effortlessly from conducting sound to that of conducting rhythm for the instrumentalists seated before him.  Most orchestral musicians will suffer a choral conductor out of the kindness of their heart for the sake of the music and the performance at hand, but in eight seasons I never heard a horn player mutter that he couldn’t follow Philip’s beat!  Never.

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Philip Brunelle conducting at Ted Mann Concert Hall

Visionary

With over 240 choral commissions to his credit, Philip has expanded not only the volume of new works to the choral canon; he has enthusiastically helped to launch entire careers of composers like Libby Larsen and the late Stephen Paulus.  His appetite for new music stems from an insatiable curiosity for a contemporary musical language that will speak to a new generation of performers and audiences, but also from the sheer delight to be had in bringing something brand new to life and then watching it take on a life of its own.  After experiencing this conductor-composer collaboration with Aaron Copland, Philip quickly saw that having the composer in rehearsal with a conductor and his or her singers could have a powerful impact on how that music was interpreted and performed.  It was during this collaboration that Philip was struck by what Aaron Copland said about there being “only so much a composer can communicate in the score about how a piece ought to be performed.”  At some point, the conductor and the musicians must complete the intent of the creator of the work.  Thanks to Philip’s you’ll-never-know-if-you-don’t-ask attitude, commissioning a piece of music from a living composer is now a common pursuit in community, school, and church choirs across the state of Minnesota.  And if you are an elementary school music teacher thinking that there is no money in your budget for such an extravagance, well, Philip has made that possible too.   Each year the Cantare! program of VocalEssence partners a handful of public school teachers in Minnesota and their students with a real live composer from Mexico to work together over the course of the school year to have a piece of music written just for them.  There is nothing quite as amazing as seeing the joy on the face of a third grader who gets to sing on the Ordway stage in May the very words that she and her classmates may have written or suggested back in October. Priceless.

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Philip Brunelle and Anthony Elliot in a demonstration performance at a local elementary school in 1992.

Collaborative

While the organization that has been known since 2002 as VocalEssence was born on the wings of a musical visionary, Philip Brunelle would be the first to say that it is not “his” organization.  The name of VocalEssence and the new mission statement of “Together We Sing” speak to the fact that this organization is all about collaboration with others; with singers and composers, with communities and educational institutions, and most certainly with audience members.  Philip also values the knowledge and contributions of others and has been comfortable enough in his own professional skin over the years to trust the vocal care and training of his chorus members to colleagues like Sigrid Johnson and Philip Shoultz; both fine conductors in their own right.  In assembling singers for the 32-voice professional chorus, Philip would often remind us as well as our audience members that he hires us on the basis of “the beauty of our personalities as much as the beauty of our voices.”  No matter how many times he uttered these words, I never tired of hearing them.

Fearless

In the course of any challenge, Philip always remains cheerful and fearless.  During one Prairie Home Companion rehearsal with a little less than an hour before the start of the show, Garrison Keillor decided that one musical number in a skit we were featured in needed the men of the ensemble to sing in 4-part harmony, which was not, of course, what we had in our scores.  No sweat.  Philip wrote out parts during dinner and handed them to the men to review before we were called to places shortly before 5 PM.  And when the Nike salespeople call for a one-minute musical snippet on the piano in the style of Rossini, or the Minnesota Timberwolves need a choir for a TV ad, it is just all in a day’s work (or really, delight) as far as Philip is concerned.

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Philip Brunelle with radio legend Garrison Keillor

Family is Key

Philip met the love of his life at a Choralaires rehearsal conducted by Bob Mantzke in the 1960s.  Philip was there to accompany and Carolyn was an alto in the choir.  The group toured Europe one summer shortly thereafter, and they both decided to stay after the tour ended to do some traveling together and the rest is history.  Philip is quick to laud Carolyn’s talent and ability as a studio artist and she has been his biggest fan and supporter and an amazing mother to their children.  When their children were young and Philip was working with Minnesota Opera, Plymouth Music Series, and Plymouth Congregational, dinnertime was the time of day set apart as sacred and the phone would go in the drawer.  Philip and Carolyn recently celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary, and I have no doubt that they are already planning their 60th and 75th anniversary trips somewhere “across the pond.”

Family as first priority extends unquestionably to Philip’s singers as well.  There was one occasion when because of some unexplained behavioral issues with our son in school I felt the need to be at home one Tuesday evening rather than at rehearsal.  I hesitated a moment before giving the real reason for my absence, but I needn’t have.  Philip reminded me that under circumstances such as these, family comes first.  Upon my return, he made a point to come over to me before rehearsal began to ask how my son was doing.  I have never forgotten this kindness.

Gratitude and Thoughtfulness

At Christmas one year, I had made a batch of raspberry rhubarb jam and it turned out so well that I shared it with everyone, including Philip.  A few days later, I received in the mail a brief, but lovely postcard from him thanking me for the jam.  More recently, on opening night of FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS at the Cowles Center, Philip knocked on the women’s dressing room door and delivered a handwritten card to each one of the women – not just those playing the major roles – with the name of a saint on the cover, selected to coincide with the role we were taking on for this show.  First of all, how thoughtful that he took the time to write to all members of the cast individually, and secondly, how did he EVER have the opportunity to chase down these beautiful cards so appropriate to the project.  I suppose it’s possible he may have put Carolyn up to the task, but my hunch is that he saw these cards in some gift shop on an international trip years ago and smiled to himself “These will be just perfect for the Virgil Thomson opera we’ll be doing in April of 2016!”

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Philip Brunelle acknowledging and thanking Peter Schickele after a collaborative performance.

One of the things I asked of Philip at the end of our interview for this article was to impart some words of wisdom and encouragement to young conductors just beginning their careers.  His first thought was:

Expand your horizons for repertoire.  Find a young composer or an old composer who you do not know.  When you find a composer and they write a piece for you, you get to be the first to do it…the first to perform it on this planet!

His final thoughts were simple, and were offered almost certainly with the knowledge that comes after hundreds of live performances in which the potential for something to go wrong always looms overhead.  “Whatever you do,” says Philip, “Don’t panic.”


 

If you are interested in hearing more interesting tales about Philip Brunelle, I refer you to the “Renaissance Man” blog being assembled by Tim Brunelle, which features a series of conversations between father and son intended to chronicle the life of Philip and his many-faceted career.  In my humble estimation there has not been another in our state’s musical history who has promoted the vocal and choral art to the degree that Philip has.  I have been honored to have been given the opportunity to view his musical brilliance over the past eight seasons from the vantage point of the Soprano II section.  And as the result of thousands of hours making music with him I know deep down that what truly makes Philip Brunelle larger-than-life is his larger-than-life heart.

I am extremely proud that ACDA-MN will honor Philip Brunelle with the Legacy Award for the indelible mark he has left – and is still leaving – on the choral arts in Minnesota.  Philip is one remarkably and singularly gifted human being whose love for singing and making music together is the basis upon which he connects with people all over the world, and most wonderfully, here in our very own backyard.  It is my hope that this portrait will inspire every one of us to preach the power of communal singing as Philip has, and to live out our calling to create communities of singing in a way that engages the participation of all.

One final note from Philip’s BIG friend up in Bemidji….

I was pretty proud of the fact that the recording of my story as set to music by Benjamin Britten, and recorded by Philip Brunelle and the Plymouth Music Series won a British Gramophone Award for Best Opera Recording in 1988.  I gotta hand it to that Brunelle fella.  He sure knows how to tell a tale so people sit up and take notice.  Nice to see that those ACDA folk are taking notice too.  Congratulations Philip!

– Paul Bunyan


 

The purpose of the Legacy articles is to highlight and focus upon the career of a prominent Minnesota choral director who made an indelible mark on choral arts in Minnesota. A further goal of the series of articles is to bring awareness to the current ACDA-MN membership as the interviewee “illuminates the past…informs the present…and inspires the future”.

 

 

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