Friday, November 28, 2008

On Jack Nicklaus and Philip Brunelle

Golf and music and life!
by Charlie Leck

In 2006 I published a small book: Quotations from Golf. In it I wanted to show how much the lessons of golf can be applied to living one’s life – that the rules and ettiquette of golf are derived from the highest principles of living. Though the quotations in the book were remarkably illustrative of this concept, I didn’t clearly explain what I was trying to get at in its Introduction.

Nevertheless, I’m proud of the publication and may someday republish it with a much clearer opening statement about the book’s premise or purpose.

For instance, take the following description of Jack Nicklaus by Bob Zender in a book he wrote with Charles Cleveland:
“The ingredient that really made him a standout was his talent for avoiding errors.

“More than anything else, the real mark of his championship caliber was his ability, game after game, year after year, to make fewer mistakes than the rest of us…

“What Jack Nicklaus has done with remarkable consistency over the years is to play ‘smart golf.’ He has learned a lesson that can be summarized quite simply: When you stop throwing away strokes needlessly, you start to play winning golf. You improve your game most effectively when you search out and eliminate your errors. It is the quickest route I know to success on the golf course.” [Bob Zender and Charles Cleveland: Winning Golf the Professional Way (Dodd, Mead & Co., NY, 1985)]
It was a remarkable trait in Jack Nicklaus. I wasn’t happy when he came along and dethroned my hero, the King, Arnold Palmer, as the best golfer of the time. Yet, it was true that Nicklaus could play hundreds of consecutive holes of golf without making an apparent mistake. He didn’t play the bold, challenging and exciting golf of Arnie, but he won more consistently than any golfer up through the history of golf to that time. His record of wins is astonishing. His record of finishing second by a very slim margin is mind-boggling.

I am reminded these days, as I look at the lives of some young people around me, that one can also choose either of these styles for living life. There is the dashing, adventurous, gambling and daring way of living. It can occasionally lead to victory (success and happiness), but it will more often result in disaster. A young billionaire in our community, who was as dashing and daring, as handsome and bold, and as brilliant and charming as any man could ever be, will soon be going off to spend a good part of the rest of his life in prison because of the dangerous life-choices he made – the mistakes he might have avoided with a different, more conservative approach. He owned grand and famous companies, a national airline and he lived in an indescribably beautiful home on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. He was envied by nearly all who knew him and knew about him.

The story reminds me of the Richard Arlington Robinson poem about Richard Corey (written in the early part of the 20th Century):
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich - yes, richer than a king -
And admirably schooled in every grace;
In fine we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Better to live life the way Jack Nicklaus, who will eternally be hailed as a hero in his sport, lived his life and played the game of golf – conservatively, cautiously, without making the grand mistake that sinks one.

Philip Brunelle
There are many people I admire so greatly in this world, but, perhaps, none more than our local maestro, Philip Brunelle. His is an extraordinary story. He approached and still approaches, life with great hope and constant cheer and optimism. Yet, he lived cautiously and avoided the big mistakes that knock one out of the game. Today, in his mid-sixties, he is a champion as triumphant as anyone I have ever known.

I don’t think any Minnesotan can claim greater prominence or more success in his chosen field than Philip Brunelle.

Here's most of a 2002 story written about him by Matt Peikin that was published in the St. Paul
Pioneer Press
. Take the time to read this story. It will inspire you.
Philip Brunelle doesn't take days off. He finds moments.
A few chapters of an obscure novel here, a laborious French recipe there. He once nodded off while playing the piano, during a performance, after going three days without sleep to fulfill an orchestral deadline. Since asking his parents for the vocal score to Handel's ``Messiah'' as a 6-year-old, Brunelle hasn't stopped working.

With the exception of the deceased Robert Shaw - and with due respect to Twin Cities contemporary Dale Warland - no American has done more than Brunelle over the past three decades to further the cultural and artistic vitality of choral music.

Brunelle has expanded the repertory by commissioning more than 80 pieces from established and emerging composers, broadened it by rooting out and reclaiming long-forgotten works and opened it to new audiences through the Plymouth Music Series' annual ``Witness'' program, which spotlights work from black composers. Brunelle won three ASCAP/Chorus America awards in the 1990s for adventuresome programming.

People who work with him describe his mind as tireless and highly evolved. He can plop himself at a piano and perform music at first sight or home in on one flat voice in a 100-singer chorus. Brunelle has a delicate build, a gleaming scalp, a soprano's speaking voice and the motor of a Chihuahua. He often works past midnight, rises before the sun and starts most mornings by running several miles around his Golden Valley neighborhood.

Before reaching his mid-20s, he had been a pianist and percussionist with what is now the Minnesota Orchestra and music director for the group that became Minnesota Opera. He has been a regular guest on ``A Prairie Home Companion'' since performing on the debut broadcast in 1974.

He has had offers to hop on the carousel that carried the world's elite touring conductors. But in an era when orchestral leaders come and go with the blur of professional sports coaches, Brunelle, 56, is a model of commitment. Amid year-round engagements throughout the Twin Cities, America and Europe, Brunelle on Saturday begins his 32nd season helming the ship he built, the Plymouth Music Series chorus.

``There are dozens and dozens of choral pieces I'm longing to do, and there's still a whole generation that knows nothing about choral music,'' he says. ``People have experiences with choral music going all the way back to elementary school, and it fixes in their minds. But if all they know is an 85-year-old vibrato you could drive a truck through, they don't know choral singing. I'm here to prove there's a difference.''
Separation of church and voice Brunelle exhales with a small, closed-mouth grin, rubs his palms together, looks at a box containing 86 new compositions and says, ``Let's see what treasures we have here.''

The charts are entries in a nationwide Christmas carol contest by Plymouth Music Series and the American Composers Forum. The winning carol earns three performances and a national radio broadcast by Plymouth, and the composer gets $1,000. Brunelle is the lone judge.

He started the contest three years ago because he wanted to dispel the image of carols as the exclusive domain of distant history. This year, Brunelle put out a call for carols set to the harp, but he doesn't guarantee a winner. ``When Christmas comes,'' he says, ``quality can go out the window.''

Brunelle doesn't need a piano or cassette to hear the carols. He simply holds each score close to his bespectacled eyes, and the music and words run through his mind. A few inspire him to bob his head from side to side. Most simply make him smile.

``Nobody submits these pieces to be funny,'' he says. ``It's all very well-meant, all very sincere. But oooooh.''

He picks up one chart, breezes through the first page and giggles.

``I wouldn't want to be a tenor and sing this,'' he says, rolling his eyes.

Brunelle scans another carol and points to a line of lyrics: Where will the sweet little chickadees go?

``Well, they won't be going to the Plymouth Music Series,'' he says, setting the chart into a growing pile of discards.

``Christmas brings out a lot of sentimentality, a lot of tender nostalgia, but splitting the word `bells' into two syllables?'' he says. ``The word `no' comes to mind.''

Brunelle has never had trouble separating his artistic standards from what he calls his ``absolute belief in God and divine provenance.''

Plymouth Music Series started as a function of Brunelle's work as organist and choirmaster for Plymouth Congregational Church, a role he still cherishes every Sunday morning. The church wanted to rejuvenate its community outreach, and Brunelle wanted a series of community concerts.

The chorus's performing, recording and touring schedules outgrew the confines of church business, and Plymouth Music Series soon became independent. Plymouth Music Series, operating this year on a $1.2 million budget, rents office space at the church and performs one concert there each year.

Plymouth Music Series programs have always blended the sacred and secular.

``You have to study and learn music apart from any creed, to learn music for the sake of music,'' Brunelle says. ``I've seen more awful sacred music, but that's also because there's more of it out there.''

Choral music is rife with conservative programming, he says, constricting the repertoire to well-worn classics while stifling audience and artistic growth. From the outset of his career, Brunelle believed new music was the key to invigorating classical music.

He laced Plymouth's debut season with lesser-known works by Handel and Aaron Copland. With his first commission, four years later, Brunelle asked Dominick Argento to compose a choral work. ``Jonah and the Whale'' ran 45 minutes and ``bowled everybody over,'' Brunelle says, and when he asked Argento why he had never written for chorales before, the composer said nobody had ever asked him.

``People in general go with what they feel comfortable with. That's why certain pieces, wonderful as they are, can just be trodden into the ground,'' Brunelle says.

``But you can be comfortable experiencing something new. The person in charge has to believe passionately in doing new work, doing it without apology, without embarrassment, and believe in the music of today.''

Bold and bright decisions
Brunelle was 13 when he watched his father, a minister, die of a heart attack in front of the family. It was Christmas morning.

``It was a big struggle. We truly had nothing,'' says Brunelle, the second oldest of five children. ``The day of our father's funeral, my mother said `I don't have a clue how this will work, but it'll be an adventure, and God will provide.' She had absolute belief, and so did we all. I had no idea we were hardship cases.''

The next few years were crucial to Brunelle's musical development. At Minnehaha Academy, Harry Opel guided Brunelle into a wider world of important choral repertoire and found him cheap organ lessons. Theodore Bergman, a top piano instructor in Minneapolis' MacPhail Center for the Arts, continued Brunelle's private lessons free of charge for several years. Clarice Brunelle kept her son in the dark about the deal until he graduated from Minnehaha Academy.

Mentoring is important to any young artist, says Brunelle, who jumps at the opportunities that come with engaging new and emerging composers. Brunelle's enduring impact on a generation of choral composers is his conviction in their work.

He focused on modern, cutting-edge opera during his 17 years as music director for Center Opera, which became Minnesota Opera under his baton. He has enjoyed more artistic freedom with Plymouth Music Series, and some say one couldn't survive without the other. Brunelle has turned down work - one manager promised to make him one of the world's elite touring conductors - that would infringe on his time with Plymouth Music Series.

Argento was one of Brunelle's music instructors at the University of Minnesota. Even then, Argento says, he saw extraordinary drive and vision in him, along with an nnate musicality.

``Any other church choir conductor must look at him and turn blue,'' Argento says. ``Philip one day called Aaron Copland and asked if he would come and conduct his choral group, and he said he would. The same with (English tenor) Peter Pears. Who else would have thought of that?''

Maria Jette, a first-call soprano and fixture in Twin Cities music for 15 years, says Brunelle brings unflinching commitment to any music he conducts. She remembers being among the early skeptics of an early-'90s program featuring Paul McCartney's ``Liverpool Oratorio.''

``All kinds of people trashed it, just by its existence,'' Jette recalls. ``When we soloists heard about it, we all kind of rolled our figurative eyes. I thought, `Philip, c'mon.' But I got the music, and it was fun. Then we got to rehearse it with the orchestra, and I thought it was just so cool. Interestingly enough, quite predictably, it got scoffing reviews from both papers. But there was no comment about the audience reaction, which was huge. People in Minnesota usually stand up after a show no matter what, but in this case, people were thrilled by it, and I just thought it took a lot of guts for Philip to do this.''

Garrison Keillor started working with Brunelle when both were at the University of Minnesota, and he brought Brunelle into ``A Prairie Home Companion'' for his ability to cover vast musical territory. Today, along with Brunelle's regular appearances on his radio show, Keillor travels with him around the country to perform with major
symphonies. Brunelle conducts and Keillor recites and narrates comic works such as ``The Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra.''

``It's a big hit; people laugh a lot. It's also a tricky piece to conduct, a lot of difficult
passages, a lot of solos. Musicians need some shepherding on that piece, and Brunelle is very good at that,'' Keillor says. ``He's a very bright boy, very quick, very sure of himself. Brunelle is one of the least anxious musicians you could ever find in your life. He is unflappable and he is possessed of daring. He will cheerfully go off and do the most complicated thing with less rehearsal and more bravado than anybody else.''

Mind, life steeped in song
If everything ping-ponging in Brunelle's head took on shape, texture and color, it
would probably look a lot like his office.

Unsolicited compositions are piled like compost along the floor beneath the tall stereo speakers behind Brunelle's desk. There's a black Steinway piano in one corner. In another, an electric typewriter Brunelle still uses despite the ribbing of his staff. His
floor-to-ceiling bookshelves hold oratorios, masses, cantatas, solos, poems and hymnals from all over the world. He needs a librarian's ladder to reach everything.

Hardly a day passes when someone doesn't ask him to verify an odd fact about an even odder piece of music. Brunelle has just answered an e-mail from a Plymouth chorus member asking for ``a simple song to sing at the gravesite of my mother-in-law.''

People have presented Brunelle degrees and honorariums - some in English, a few in Swedish - and some sit on the floor near the door, as if in a waiting line for open wall space. People have also given Brunelle what he calls ``crazy gifts,'' including several versions of the Statue of Liberty. One, in green, dances when you sing into it.

Carolyn Brunelle met her future husband through choral work and sang in the Plymouth Music Series chorus for 25 years. She has long regarded her husband's pace and aplomb as ideal contrasts to her own quiet, modest nature. A floral designer early in their relationship, she dedicated herself to homemaking through the raising of their three children, now grown and married.

She now indulges her work as a fine art painter but still makes Philip's coffee each morning - he sets out the beans before leaving for his daily jogs - and can't imagine life outside her husband's musical storm.

``People don't think he knows how to relax. He does. He just does it differently than most people,'' she says. ``I suppose I help him slow down, sometimes. But vacation for him isn't sitting on a beach or skiing. He loves to read, loves to eat, loves to cook, loves to explore. He's supportive of me and the children - not just saying `go for it,'
but helping. He's always willing to go the extra 20 miles.''

Brunelle didn't stop working through his mother's death this past June. ``She would never have thought I'd sit home and mourn,'' he says.

He's chairing the next World Choral Symposium 2002, when the world's top conductors and chorales converge on Minneapolis. Then there's the current Plymouth Music Series season, built in typical Brunelle panorama. The calendar features a Nov. 12 bow to Linda McCartney and a cabaret opera premiering next April that tells the story of Jenny Lind's American tour 150 years ago with P.T. Barnum.

``If you're going to do what I do, you have to have huge belief in yourself, but also
believe in your frailty,'' Brunelle says. ``You know you're going to make mistakes. But I hope I've come to the point where people open up their season brochures, see names and pieces they've never heard of before and just trust that I'm going to take them someplace moving and memorable.'' [END QUOTE]
“You know you’re going to make mistakes,” Brunelle said, and Nicklaus would own up to it also. The important thing is not to make the big ones and keep the small ones to a minimum. Classic Nicklaus! Classic Brunelle!

Since that story in 2002, Philip has gone on to pile up more and more honors… Here’s how a program from a Vocal Essence performance outlines those achievements.

Honorary doctorates:
St. Olaf College
Gustavus Adolphus College
St. John's University
United Theological Seminary

Kodaly Medal (Hungary),
Royal Order of the Polar Star (Sweden)
Minneapolis Award
F. Melius Christiansen Award
(highest honor of the Minnesota Chapter of the American
Choral Directors Association)
Minnesota Music Hall of Fame
U.S. Bank Sally Ordway Irvine Award
GMCVA Copper Top Award
Mpls.St.Paul "Best Impresario”
Michael Korn Founder's Award for Development
of the Professional Choral Art (Chorus America's highest lifetime achievement award)
Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)
Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit

Board of Regents
St. Olaf College
Board of Directors
International Federation for Choral Music
Chorus America

Recent guest conductorships
BBC Singers
Houston Symphony
Hollywood Bowl
Berkshire Choral Festival

And this only scratches the surface.

Champions make themselves Champions. Phillip Brunelle has made himself one. He is one of Minnesota’s greatest and most important citizens.

And the most important thing about this story has to do with the way he did it. It is from this that we should learn life lessons. Philip Brunelle didn’t have to stomp on people or climb over people or claw his way to the top. He let his talent take him there through hard work, perseverance and without ever forgetting to be honest, kind, caring, gentle and meek. (Well, as I think about it, ‘meek’ might be a stretch!)

Philip eliminated the mistakes and took home victory after victory. He is a friend, but he is also one of my heroes.

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