This podcast is an ongoing interview series with noted conductor, organist, musical leader, educator and entrepreneur Philip Brunelle.
17 - VocalEssence 2021-2022 Season, Examined
Episode 17 covers the expanse of inspiration and insights leading to VocalEssence's 2021-2022 season. Philip talks about researching and programming a diverse mix of choral music—from Astor Piazzolla to Gabriel Kahane to The Aeolians to Jose Nünez to Stewart Copeland of The Police. "There's so much great choral music of the past and present," notes Philip, gesturing to the tens of thousands of scores surrounding his office. In this episode we also learn what constitutes a "fantastic" composition for singers, that Philip manages to "inbox zero," and the secret history linking Stewart Copeland to Philip back in 1977.
16 - Resilience
An apt title for this episode might be How a Choral Director Works Through a Pandemic (and Other Adversities). In facing the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, Philip recalls, "my reaction was—become creative. What are the opportunities to share music in a new way, in a new dimension?" That's our main focus in this episode, on the ways in which a choral director pivots in the face of a situation that literally threatens choral music. There was a lot to learn, and a lot that's now changed. Philip remarks, "We know there's no going back. we can be in a space, we can sing... but there's an audience beyond the room, so it's going to have to be streamed. We have to think about the audience in the venue and the audience watching on their screen." At the root of it all is a mindset: "When something comes at you that you are not expecting, don't panic. Panic will get you nowhere, except down a path you don't want to go."
15 - Improvisation, Part Two (Opera)
And we’re back! We return to the topic of Improvisation—this time focusing on improv in the realm of Opera. (See episode 11 for Improv, Part One.) You might not consider Opera a venue for improvisation but the practice goes back to the Baroque era and the practice of ornamentation. Philip discusses this, and more, in a conversation including singer and long-time operatic improv partner Vern Sutton. The two first met at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s. They take us on a journey to Minnesota Opera in the 1970s and its fully improvised performances of The Newest Opera in the World, directed by Wesley Balk. Imagine an opera who’s libretto, roles and music style are dictated by the audience spinning a wheel of fortune—Act 1 might be Romantic while Act 2 is German Expressionism. “Improvisation teaches trust, it teaches ensemble,” notes Sutton. The two define the process and rigor involved in organizing eight singers to improv together over dozens of performances. They also discuss failing, the role of the audience, resilience, and Balk’s book about their experiences together, The Complete Singer-Actor: Training for Music Theater. The episode includes several instances of Vern singing while Philip collaborates on piano to illuminate various points.
Episode 14 - Christmas Prep 2018
In this episode, Philip walks us through his methodology for preparing a Christmas music season — starting with his first at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis in 1968. We discuss programming, rehearsing, and then focus on the topic of carols. Philip talks about the history, structure and nuances of effective Christmas carols. We end with a review of the winners in this 20th year of VocalEssence's holiday carol contest.
13 - VocalEssence Turns 50
Way back in 1969 a 25-year old Philip Brunelle was hired as organist and choirmaster at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, while still serving as percussionist and pianist for the Minnesota Orchestra. Clearly, he wasn't busy enough. Because in that same year, Philip founded the Plymouth Music Series of Minnesota which later became VocalEssence (http://vocalessence.org).
In this episode we go back in time to understand the organization's founding stories -- the motivations and challenges Philip faced, as well as his inspirations.
We talk about how Philip met Aaron Copland (it involves sitting between Leonard Bernstein and Copland) then later inviting Copland to Minneapolis to conduct his choral work. We talk about the systems and attitudes necessary to sustain decade upon decade of inventive musical programming, financial stability and audience engagement. And we talk about what's in store for VocalEssence's 50th season, as well as the next 50 years. If there's a founder's story, this is it.
This episode also features three numbers from VocalEssence's 1990 Virgin Classics recording of Aaron Copland's opera The Tender Land.
Act 1 - Two Little Bits Of Metal
Act 2 - Stomp Your Foot Upon The Floor
Act 1 - The Promise Of Living
12 - Dominick Argento Interview, March 2018
In mid-March 2018, Philip sat down with Pulitzer Prize winning music composer, and Minneapolis resident, Dominick Argento. Their conversation ranges across a decades-long relationship, from the 1960s when Philip was student and Dominick his teacher at the University of Minnesota, to later periods when Philip commissioned Dom to write all kinds of choral music.