When the coronavirus crisis hit, Philip Brunelle started talking, and he has been talking ever since.
The result? A string of “Musical Moments” videos, which he has posted online every weekday since March 23 on his VocalEssence choir’s website. On Monday, the series hits a milestone — its 100th edition.
Each clip lasts about 10 minutes, and focuses on a different composer. The formula is simple: Brunelle sits at a piano, plays a tune or two, and talks to the camera in a viewer-friendly mix of musical commentary and casual anecdote.
“I wanted to give some joy to people who are stuck at home at the minute,” he said. “And because in my life I have met so many composers, I thought I could also make ‘Musical Moments’ personal.
“It just kept on growing. And I have a list of 100 more composers that I’ve not done yet.”
Filmed by Brunelle’s son Tim, a media professional, “Musical Moments” has thrown up a swirl of quirky memories, forgotten facts and fond reminiscences. In a recent Zoom call, Brunelle took time off from preparing a “special” 100th episode to share his favorite stories from the series.
Saying no to Argento (March 23): When Twin Cities-based composer Dominick Argento showed Brunelle a poem by Federico García Lorca that he wanted to set for a commission, a young Brunelle swallowed hard and handed it back to him. “Too grim a text,” he remembers. Instead Argento suggested a medieval English text, which eventually became “Jonah and the Whale” — an oratorio that Brunelle subsequently recorded.
A symphony, a bodyguard and Libby Larsen (April 3): In 1985 Brunelle was working with Minnesota composer Larsen on her choral symphony “Coming Forth Into Day.” Jehan Sadat, widow of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who had been assassinated in 1981, helped assemble the texts and flew to the Twin Cities to narrate Brunelle’s premiere performance at the Ordway. Sadat’s bodyguard came, too, and wanted to sit on stage with her. Eventually he was positioned in the front row of seats — “where he could leap up on stage if necessary,” Brunelle explains. Happily, that wasn’t necessary.
A first for Aaron Copland (April 15): When VocalEssence was in its early days as the Plymouth Music Series — Brunelle has been organist and choirmaster at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis since 1969 — he took a shot at inviting the doyen of American composers to conduct the church’s fledgling choir. Expecting no, he got a yes. “No one has ever asked me to conduct my choral music before,” the great man said. “Tell me the date, I will cancel what I’m doing and be in Minneapolis.” Brunelle later traveled to Copland’s home with mezzo-soprano Janis Hardy to record Copland’s “Old American Songs” under the composer’s supervision.
Driftwood and whalebone with Steve Heitzeg (April 22): On Earth Day 2020 Brunelle put Minneapolis composer Heitzeg in the spotlight. “Of all the composers I know, Steve is the man who celebrates the natural world the most, and the peaceful coexistence of all species through music,” Brunelle said. Stones, driftwood, seashells and whalebone are among the “found objects” Heitzeg uses in his music, and he wrote a special piano piece, “Water on Rocks Waltz,” for his “Musical Moments” episode.
Crosswords with Daniel Kantor (April 23): Composers sometimes have unusual hobbies — Dvorák, for example, was an enthusiastic trainspotter, and Mozart famously adored a game of billiards. Minneapolis composer Kantor’s secret passion is more sedentary. “He’s one of about 100 people who create crossword puzzles for the New York Times,” Brunelle said. “I don’t know a lot of composers who can claim that.”
Turning pages for Olivier Messiaen (April 29): When the great French composer came to the old Guthrie Theater to play a piano recital, Brunelle was in the audience. “About five minutes before the concert, they had a problem. Messiaen needed a page turner,” Brunelle recalls. He volunteered himself, and later that evening discussed Minnesota bird calls over dinner with Messiaen, an expert ornithologist.
Lunching with Arthur Honegger (June 9): “Did you know that Honegger and his wife lived in two separate apartments, and only met for lunch?” Brunelle unearthed that nugget while researching his mini-lecture on the Swiss composer. Honegger “needed his privacy to compose,” apparently. Perhaps surprisingly, the marriage lasted three decades, and the lunching couple even had a daughter to show for it.
Ralph Vaughan Williams and the orange crate (June 17): In 1972 Brunelle invited esteemed violist Lillian Fuchs to play at a concert celebrating Williams’ centenary. There was just one problem, he remembers: “She was this little short woman, and we had to build a special podium so the audience could see her.” Fuchs duly mounted the orange-crate-like contraption, and performed Williams’ “Flos Campi” without mishap.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.
Musical Moments with Philip Brunelle