The omnipresent Phillip Brunelle

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February 12, 2002 // UPDATED 1:13 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Dean J. Seal
Dean J. Seal

Black History Month's most interesting performance is created by a guy who has revitalized choral singing

I was watching the Prairie Home Companion at St. Olaf College, and one of the guests was Phillip Brunelle (he's also on the college's Board of Directors). I had recently signed up for grad school, and noticed that one of their professors was Phillip Brunelle. The Sally Ordway Awards recently honored Phillip Brunelle with a trophy for Commitment. The most interesting item I've seen for Black History Month is "WITNESS" at Orchestra Hall with the Plymouth Music Series, produced and directed by Phillip Brunelle. I was buying a cup of coffee at the Acadia the other day and this guy came in and it was...well, you get the idea.

Mind you, I'm not complaining. His mission is the advancement of choral work as an art form, and he continues to connect.

His latest contribution is his annual tribute to African-American writers and composers. He'll be taking his band of 100 voices and adding it to the Morehouse College Glee Club, a 90-year-old men's chorus from Atlanta that has rattled the bones of everyone from FDR to Nelson Mandela. And to make sure he's firing on all eight cylinders, he has commissioned new work by Bobby McFerrin and Patrice Rushen, enrolled visual artist Ta-coumba Aiken to dress the place out, and added a young person's concert hosted by Robyne Robinson.

Not just Satchmo "I'd been noticing that when we got to Black History Month, that some organizations would program something from Louis Armstrong, and that would be about it," said Brunelle. "I decided if we wanted to really celebrate this month, we should find something special. Most of the classical work is unpublished, so it took some digging, but I found quite a bit of work that deserved to be heard."

This year's talent roster is the fruition of many years of building a tradition. "Each year I've invited special guests," says Brunelle with pride. "This is an especially good choir. And we commissioned a piece from Patrice Rushen. I asked her to write a piece for my men and the Morehouse guys together, that's 75 men total. They can do it with orchestra here, but I asked her to write it with piano accompaniment, so Morehouse could take it on tour as well."

That's a good example of getting two meals out of one turn in the kitchen.

Wooing Aaron Copland The Series was birthed at Plymouth Church in 1969. Brunelle explained, "There is no one who is promoting choral music beyond ten to 12 warhorses that every choir does. I asked the people at Plymouth Church to fund it as community outreach.

"You need to start these things with a bang, so the very first year I called Aaron Copland and asked him to direct one of his choral works. I told him, 'I don't know if this will work, I don't know if we can afford you.' He said, 'Young man, you are the first person to ask me to conduct my choral work. I'd be thrilled to come whenever you like.'"

After ten years the Plymouth series got too big for the church, so the organization established their own board and now have their own staff and a $1.5-million annual budget. "It's a unique program, not just in Minneapolis, but nationally. People know that it will be interesting, well-performed, and very exciting. But it is a risk," Brunelle said. "People know what the Messiah is like, but they don't know what Patrice Rushen is going to write. So they have to be encouraged to take a risk on an ongoing basis."

Brunelle believes in continuing the tradition of commissioning new works -- that is, paying composers to write new music that will be performed. "We need to keep investing in the people living now so that we will have a body of work in the future," he said.

"Choral music is different from instrumental music, because you have to focus on a text at the same time as the music. Plus, you have to make a connection with the audience, so that the sound works beautifully, and make the text have some vitality for the listening audience."

One could speculate that the Sally Irvine Ordway Awards gained more in respectability by having Brunelle accept an award than he did by receiving it, since he's been doing choral work for three times as long as they have been giving out trophies. But why shouldn't he go over there for a banquet? He's everywhere else.