Choral music called ... and Philip Brunelle answered

Connect The Dots Philip Brunelle
Philip Brunelle conducting VocalEssence for 'Welcome Christmas'
Courtesy of VocalEssence

Philip Brunelle has done it all. Currently, he’s the founder and artistic director of VocalEssence. VocalEssence is based at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. Brunelle has led the choir for 55 years.

A former member of VocalEssence once wrote, in addition to his choral work, he is often “simultaneously employed as a church musician, organist, opera conductor, and orchestral musician and conductor.”

MPR’s senior economics contributor Chris Farrell recently met with the 80-year-old Brunelle. Farrell shares highlights of the conversation with MPR News host Cathy Wurzer.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: Right, it's time for our series, Connect the Dots, where we ask community elders to share their wisdom about what really matters in life and lessons learned about living. So, we're going to start off with some music, shall we?


And the darkness falls from the wings of night

CATHY WURZER: This is the VocalEssence choir singing "Day is Done" by Stephen Paulus. VocalEssence is based at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. Philip Brunelle, its founder and artistic director, has led VocalEssence for 55 years. MPR's senior economics contributor Chris Farrell recently met with the 80-year-old Brunelle. Welcome back, Chris.

CHRIS FARRELL: Oh, it's great to be here.

CATHY WURZER: Where have I been? Philip Brunelle turns 80 years old. That just doesn't seem possible. For goodness' sakes. Now, for folks who are not familiar with Philip-- I love him-- he is internationally known. VocalEssence internationally famous organization, has flourished under his leadership. But for folks not familiar, how did VocalEssence get started?

CHRIS FARRELL: You know, Cathy, it's really-- it's a critical part of this lifelong love story between Brunelle and music, and became a church organist when he was 14 in Bloomington. He moved to Park Avenue Covenant, then Holy Trinity Lutheran. And then when he was 25 years old, he got a call from Plymouth Congregational Church to be its organist and director.

Mind you now, he graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in music. And he was one of the youngest musicians ever hired by the Minnesota Orchestra. Shortly after he got the job, he said, I want to start a music series that would draw on people in the community who want to sing.

PHILIP BRUNELLE: It started really as a kind of outreach from Plymouth Church, such that today, some people still think that it's a Plymouth Church choir, which it isn't at all. I mean, now, we've got 150 singers, and there are two in the group who are Plymouth Church people. So, it's evolved.

CATHY WURZER: Yes, it has. Oh, my goodness. So, I know Philip and the group have traveled the world, promoting opera and choral music. I mean, I have to say, he's like the Energizer bunny. He just always goes and goes and goes.

CHRIS FARRELL: I love that. He's also commissioned some 350 compositions over the years. And he was the music director of the Minnesota Opera for 17 years. And this is what a former member of VocalEssence once wrote-- in addition to his choral work, he is often simultaneously employed as a church musician, organist, opera conductor, an orchestral musician, and conductor.

CATHY WURZER: Did I say he was the Energizer bunny? Yes, I'm right. He's tireless. And I don't know this. Where did Philip Brunelle grow up?

CHRIS FARRELL: So his early years were in Austin, Minnesota. His father was a minister. And the family moved to Northeast Minneapolis when he was seven. And Brunelle says his parents were really supportive. And he carries with him a life lesson from his mother-- stay positive and look for opportunities.

PHILIP BRUNELLE: It was an unusual upbringing in that my father, the minister, had a heart attack and died in front of us on Christmas morning when he was 43 and left my mom with five kids, who were 15, I was 13, eight, two, and 11 months. And after the funeral, I remember she pulled us together and just said, well, I don't know how this is going to work. It's going to be an adventure. And God will provide.

And I can tell you, there was never a feeling around the house of, oh, poor us. Oh, we've been dealt this bad luck. It was, it's all going to work out. And her positive attitude about life was something that I know I inherited and I know my siblings inherited because you just simply had to go ahead. So, I've always just felt very positive about what life gives you.

CATHY WURZER: I wonder how that positive approach to life has affected his career.

CHRIS FARRELL: Well, Cathy, I want to give you a practical example. And this practical example really holds lessons for the rest of us. Call it his "you'll never know if you don't ask" approach. So, let me set this up with an example from a brief meeting he had with Aaron Copland, the great American composer. So, one summer, when Brunelle was young, he studied at the Metropolitan Opera, and he was asked to follow the score during a rehearsal.

PHILIP BRUNELLE: And as I'm sitting there with this score, this voice out in the audience before the rehearsal started says, Who has a score? And I raised my hand. And suddenly, Leonard Bernstein sits next to me. And then a very quiet voice right behind said, May I also share? And that was, yes, Mr. Copland. So, he sat on the other side of me. And we were there. And so that was the one time that I had met him. So, I felt very comfortable calling him up.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, my gosh. You're kidding me, sitting between two legends. OK, so that led Philip Brunelle to call up Aaron Copland?

CHRIS FARRELL: Yes, so he had just started at VocalEssence. And of course, he was looking to make a splash. And Brunelle fondly remembers his conversation with Copland.

PHILIP BRUNELLE: It's one of my mottos, which is, you don't know if you don't ask, because all people can say is yes or no. And so, and the chance of yes, you've got 50% right there. So, I picked up the phone and called this guy named Aaron Copland and said, Mr. Copland, I'm starting a music series, and I want to focus on choral music that's outside the 8 or 10 pieces that everybody knows-- "Handel's Messiah," "Brahms Requiem," et cetera.

And I'd love to have a concert of your music for choir with you conducting. And he paused and said, young man, no one has asked me to do that. I would love to do it. I love my choral music. Tell me the date. I'll cancel what I have and be there. And that's how it started.

CHRIS FARRELL: And the concert was packed because people wanted to see Aaron Copland and hear his choral music.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, I can only imagine. I love the "answer is always no unless you ask" motto, you know? You have a 50% chance of a yes, which is good advice to keep in mind. Don't be afraid of rejection.

CHRIS FARRELL: So, the trick is how practical he is with his approach. He always finds some kind of connection, Cathy, however it's small or thin, to the people he's successfully approached, including Copland, of course, James Earl Jones and Benny Andersson of ABBA.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, [LAUGHS] ABBA, no less. OK, so, what has always stuck with me over these many years of covering Philip Brunelle and his music is just the diversity in his music choices.

CHRIS FARRELL: Well, Cathy, we had this just lovely moment when he talked about the impact that the texts in choral music have on him. Sometimes, the words come from the Bible, but often, it's the words of a poet, a contemporary poet. And he loves composers. And the music gets him excited, and the words move him. And that led him to say, you know what? Keep music in your life, he says. Music matters.

PHILIP BRUNELLE: I think music has a depth to it that young people, sometimes, aren't aware of how much this can affect who they are and how they respond to the world. And I know for many people, that music can be something that goes inside of you. And years later, you may go, oh, I remember this wonderful piece of music. I've never forgotten it. And the reason they often can remember it is because they remember the words that went with it.

My mother is an example. When she was in her later '80s and she had some dementia, and I went to see her and she was kind of vague, and then I would say, oh, but do you remember-- and I'd name an old hymn. Right away, she starts singing it. Remembered the words, remembered the melody. And, you know, I just find people have this longing to hold on to something that's special and dear to them. And oftentimes, that something that's special and dear is music.

CATHY WURZER: I tell you what, Chris, that's so true. I remember how my friends who have had dementia, Alzheimer's, how they can easily sing, word for word, a song specifically. And I also see the difference that music makes in some of the harder conversations that I've had around Minnesota involving purposeful living with the non-profit I founded, the End in Mind Project. Getting back to Philip, what else stood out to you? You covered a whole lot of ground here.

CHRIS FARRELL: Well, it's always struck me whenever I'm around him that his singular trait is his endless curiosity and enthusiasm. I mean, the combination of the two is infectious. And he's always encouraging people to put themselves in a position where they can be surprised. Whenever he gives a class, for example, he stresses the importance of curiosity, of being willing to learn something new.

PHILIP BRUNELLE: I always talk about how important it is to be inquisitive and how important it is to keep asking questions and getting to know things. The more you can know is the more you don't know. And I know a lot of choral music, but I don't know all the choral music. So, I'm always fascinated when some young person says, Hey, do you know composer X? And I go, No, how do I find them? But I do find that the sense of curiosity is really an important fact that I've always gone for.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, I know. That's what I love about my job, too. I always keep curious and always learn something. Now, you mentioned that Philip Brunelle is 80 years old, which I can't believe. And I'm sure he's not retiring, knowing him.

CHRIS FARRELL: Not even close. He just joined a committee, Cathy. It was formed to come up with ideas on how to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Constitution in 2026. And I just want to end this conversation. It's on a note that was inspired by Brunelle, and it's both for younger people and older people to think about.

Talk to one another. Learn from one another. Reach out if you have a question. I mean, there's nothing new about intergenerational conversations. Socrates and Plato, Merlin and Arthur, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker-- sorry, I had to put that one in there. The thing is, the learning goes both ways.

PHILIP BRUNELLE: If a young person calls me up and says, Can I ask you some questions? I go, yes, let's do it. And I will tell you musicians that have gone through life and are continuing their life are thrilled when a young person comes to them and says, I have some questions for you. I may not always have the answers they want, but I can certainly advise them. And I just want to encourage them, keep being surprised.

CATHY WURZER: Keep being surprised. Oh, I love that!

CHRIS FARRELL: Isn't that a great motto?

CATHY WURZER: Oh, yeah. Chris, I've really enjoyed this. Thank you so much.

CHRIS FARRELL: Thanks a lot, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Chris Farrell is MPR's senior economics contributor.

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