Renaissance Man - Philip Brunelle and Music-logo

Renaissance Man - Philip Brunelle and Music


This podcast is an ongoing interview series with noted conductor, organist, musical leader, educator and entrepreneur Philip Brunelle.




This podcast is an ongoing interview series with noted conductor, organist, musical leader, educator and entrepreneur Philip Brunelle.








26 - Thank You, Mary Ann

Here's an episode for anyone curious about how a 55+ year old choral arts organization continues to thrive through its operational leadership. This Thanksgiving weekend we're turning our gratitude to VocalEssence Executive Director Mary Ann Aufderheide to celebrate her 20+ years helping lead the organization. So much to uncover in this episode, including her journey to VE, decades of lessons learned, insights around arts leadership, the evolution of arts management, and the challenges and joys of evolving a leadership role alongside an organization co-founder. Philip, Tim and Mary Ann discuss the balance of executive versus artistic leadership, the evolving role of an arts org board, and Mary Ann's highlights over the past 20 years. Thanks for your remarkable era of leadership, Mary Ann!


25 - VocalEssence '23-'24 Season & 55 Years at Plymouth Church

Philip loves jokes and puns. So let's start there as a prelude to describing the 55th seasons at both VocalEssence and Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. Turns out various choir members have given Philip books of jokes and riddles, along with many other trinkets over the decades so we discussed that tradition. Then we worked through the many highlights of VocalEssence's 55th season, noting numerous new choral commissions, various collaborations, the challenge of selecting just 90 minutes of "favorites" from 55 years of curating and commissioning, and the return (in March) of Melanie DeMore—listen to Philip's interview with Melanie from episode 09 (link below). The second half of this episode focuses on the diverse repertoire selected for Plymouth from September to June, again highlighting lots of new commissions. The episode ends with a 2010 VocalEssence recording of the American folks song "Oh Dear! What Can the Matter Be" arranged by Norman Luboff. NOTES VocalEssence's 55th Season Melanie DeMore Interview (episode 9)


24 - Philip's 80th Birthday Spectacular

We're each a product of our times and experiences. In this episode Philip retraces some historic moments to uncover insights across 80 years of choral direction, church music and artistic leadership. We discuss his favorite church organs around the world. That moment at the New York Philharmonic in June 1968 holding the score to Gunther Schuller's Concerto for Doublebass and Chamber Orchestra, while sitting between Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. And the opportunities and challenges when shifting from performer to leader. We get Philip's perspective on the word "retirement," to wit, "I'm not going to." And his advice to signers, conductors, organizational leaders and audiences.


23 - St Olaf ACDA Interview

23 - St Olaf ACDA Interview by Tim Brunelle


22 - 2023 World Choral Symposium Recap

This episode is a quick recap of Philip's journey to Istanbul for the 2023 World Choral Symposium. We talk about his previous trip to Istanbul 60 years prior, and the range of insights uncovered during this year's event, and his visit to the historic Blue Mosque. We also preview the final concert of VocalEssence's 54th season featuring Moira Smiley, the American Choral Director's Association annual meeting at the end of this month, and Philip's plans for the summer. VocalEssence Concert World Choral Symposium


21 - Pragmatic Choral Direction

"Singing is a tricky business!" notes Philip, before he flies East to attend the 2023 World Choral Symposium in Istanbul. "It's the only musical experience where you can't see your instrument." In episode 21 we sat down to talk about the business of being a choir director. "It begins with observing the product, the choir in action," says Philip. He learned by being a choir member first, then watching how others, including Robert Shaw and Charles Munsch, directed. Philip's first full-time choir director position came with also being the organist at Holy Trinity Lutheran in Minneapolis at age 20. (He had joined the Minnesota Orchestra the year prior.) Philip moved to become Organist and Choir Director at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis at age 25, where he has remained since. "Choirs need three things," says Philip. "The first is rhythm. That's the most important skill. Then you learn notes. And then words. That's it!" Philip also talks about the business of "singing as one," which is not about blend—rather, about achieving a unified sound. He also reveals various habits, process and techniques for helping balance choirs, build confidence among singers, and increase their flexibility. "50% of what a choir does is vocal. 50% is listening," says Philip. As a director, you are always coaching ways to actively listen, so a choir hears where and how each part fits in the picture. This episode features excerpts from two VocalEssence recordings. The first is from Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise)by Felix Mendelssohn (1840). The second is "A Ukrainian Prayer" by John Rutter. Both can be found at VE's YouTube page.


20 - The State of Choral Music Around the World, Circa 2023

The State of Choral Music Around the World, Circa 2023. To begin the 2023 season of this podcast we journey around the globe to gain an understanding of choirs, audiences, repetoire and innovation in choral music. Philip surveyed his network to gain perspective from choral leaders, including: • Simon Halsey, Chorus Director – City of Birmingham (England) Symphony Chorus • Jorge Cordoba, radio program: Horizontes de Nuestra Música (Mexico) • Reijo Kekkonen, publisher of Finnish choral music - Sulasol • Jonathan Velasco, Senior Lecturer, University of Philippines College of Music • Virginia Bono, Founder and Artistic Director, Estudio Coral Meridies (Argentina) • Yoshi Egawa, Deputy Secretary-General, Japan Choral Association Both choirs and audiences are coming back, but slowly, worldwide. Within Philip’s network, he’s estimating audiences returning to roughly 60-75% of pre-Covid levels, as of early 2023. Interestingly, in both Finland and especially the U.S. there’s been a shift in ticket purchasing—from season tickets and per event tickets sold months in advance to much shorter purchasing windows. The average is now just a few weeks, and often day-of purchasing, which is impacting the ability for choral organizations to plan financing of choral programs effectively. Choirs are also curious about and embracing more diverse sources of repetoire. In Mexico there’s a resurgence in interest in pre-Hispanic sounds and instruments. And in a nod to the value of continuous innovation, Philip encourages young choral musicians to, “Be curious—See what’s out there, and what’s out there may not be brand may be somthing that was written 100 years ago.”And to conclude, Philip’s assessment of the state of choral music globally is: It is thriving, growing and embracing a wider range of music, in great part because, “Everyone needs music in their life for their own soul and for their own well being.” *** We closed out this episode with a snippet of Felix Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), performed by the VocalEssence Chorus & Ensemble Singers featuring Nicholas Chalmers, tenor, JoAnna Johnson, soprano, Elsa Buck, soprano II, and orchestra conducted by Artistic Director & Founder Philip Brunelle—recorded at Benson Great Hall, Bethel University in Arden Hills, MN on Saturday, October 15, 2022.


19 - VocalEssence '22-'23 Season & 54 Years at Plymouth Church

Philip dives into the work involved in planning not one, but two seasons: His 54th as Organist and Choir Master at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, and the 54th season of VocalEssence. As Philip notes, "People love challenges in choral music" and both seasons deliver. We discuss the business of being a music director in these two seasons, and the efforts required to get them ready for launch. Then we talk through details behind the six major concerts in VE's 54th year.


18 - Stewart Copeland

Episode 18 welcomes 5-time Grammy winning drummer and composer Stewart Copeland to unravel his latest composition, the oratorio Satan's Fall. In this episode, brother Chris steps in for Tim as Philip and Stewart discuss the intricacies of the source text, Milton's epic Paradise Lost. As for composing, "The most important thing in any piece of music is rhythm," says Philip. "That's it. It starts with rhythm. I always say (to a choir), 'You've got just three things to deal with... you've got rhythm, notes, and words... and you learn them in that order.'" The trio discuss the commissioning process, writing specifically for choir and Stewart's assertion that in Satan's Fall, "choir is boss." Thanks to Cody Boudrot for engineering. Photo credit: Ali Rogers/Pranalens Music in episode 18: Opening montage is a collection of VocalEssence and Plymouth Church choir moments plus Philip Brunelle on organ and conducting orchestra. The closing moment is a segment from Act I of Stewart Copeland's Satan's Fall from Milton's "Paradise Lost". The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburg, Matthew Mahaffey conducting; God (bass Hayden Keefer), Satan (bass Scott O’Neal) narrators, Raphael (tenor Nathan Granner), Raphaella (soprano Jamie Chamberlin) and the Messiah (soprano Stephanie Sue Curtice). Source:


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 ( 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.


11 - Improvisation, Part One

In this first of three related episodes, Philip begins a conversation on Improvisation. After checking in on recent adventures with the IFCM in Barcelona, Spain and Kaili, China, Philip dives in—discussing improv training, perspectives and experiences in the classical, church and operatic realms. He touches on French organist training, Handel’s oratorios, Baroque ornamentation and Bel Canto, as well as music theory and the importance of understanding Inventions, Sonata Form, Fugue form, etc. Philip talks about a legendary improvisation experience taking over the piano chair for Arthur Kleiner to support a five hour silent film - Abel Gance’s Napoleon - at the Walker Art Center. He digs into the preparation and live improvisations created for Minnesota Opera’s “Newest Opera in the World” as well as frequent and varied types of improvisations on A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor and his infamous weekly organ improvisations during Sunday services at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis.


10 - ACDA 2017 National Convention

In this tenth episode, Philip talks about preparations and excitement for the American Choral Directors Association national convention, which involves thousands of singers from all over the world, taking place in Minneapolis in early March 2017.


09 - Protest Music with Melanie DeMore

Episode 09 of Renaissance Man welcomes vocal activist Melanie DeMore ( who is collaborating and performing with Philip Brunelle through the month of February as part of Vocal Essence WITNESS. In this episode, Melanie and Philip talk about the history of Protest Music in the world and especially in the US, the hallmarks of effective protest songs, and their work together this month leading into the upcoming WITNESS: Underground Railroad performances ( It's a timely and deep discussion of how music, song and singing together can change the individual as well as help change the world.


08 - Holiday 2016

Episode 8 is focused on the business of holiday music specifically, the logistics and work that goes on behind the scenes by a music director to make Christmas and holiday performances what they are. It was recorded in Philip’s office on December 8, 2016. During the episode, Philip talks about selecting and programming music at Plymouth Church and VocalEssence for the holidays, including his sources of programming inspiration. He talks about how to keep programing fresh, and how to learn from your mistakes. He talks about the importance of organizing music selections in the most effective order, focusing on the audience’s point of view, first and foremost. He winds up discussing 16 years worth of conducting the Minnesota Dance Theater’s production of The Nutcracker. We hope you enjoy it!


07 - Opera, Part 2

In this second of two episodes dedicated to opera, Philip talks about the business of opera and the role a Music Director plays in day-to-day financials, operations, planning and fund raising that drive an opera company. He uses his 17 years of experience with Minnesota Opera and conducting experience around the world as a tapestry for illustrating the collaboration between composers, stage directors, singers and instrumentalists in getting work from theory to closing curtain. Philip recalls his experiences commissioning and working with American composers including Conrad Susa and Dominick Argento. Later on, he dives into a brief history of bel canto arias, and we discuss why the musical Hamilton is unlikely to make an appearance at your local opera house. Philip also compares and contrasts the role of a music director in an opera company with that of a music director in a church setting. We end the discussion with Philip’s perspective on the future of opera around the world.