New Music America

"I MAKE NO apologies for what I'm doing," says Phillip Brunelle, founder and director of the Minneapolis-based Plymouth Music Series, which recently won the ASCAP-Chorus America Award for Adventurous Programming. Brunelle's group is the only ensemble in the country to win it three times. Why? Well, they didn't become internationally known as champions of new music by being tentative in programming it.

"A question we get asked a lot," Brunelle says, "is 'How do you find an audience that's willing to come for something they've never heard before?'" His response? Don't slate new pieces first on a program so latecomers miss it, and don't bury them amongst more familiar pieces. If you play them boldly and play them well--people will come.

"When I started in 1969," he recalls, "about the only thing you'd hear in town with orchestra would be Messiah. Minnesota Orchestra would do Brahms's Requiem, or Verdi's Requiem--the old warhorses. And that's great. But I said, 'There's all this other great music out there, and nobody's ever doing it.'"

One of Plymouth's most successful programs is the annual Witness concert, a celebration of African-American composers and performers. Like the Plymouth Series itself--which began as an outgrowth of Brunelle's music ministry at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis--the program started small.

Lots of performances and two Witness CDs later, the program has become the mainstay of Plymouth's public-school outreach as well as a perennial box-office success. The Series, while continuing to find underperformed music by black Americans, has begun commissioning new music for the concerts as well.

And new music is, more than anything else, what the Series is known for. Besides presenting numerous premieres and out-of-the-way contemporary pieces, Brunelle has commissioned new works all along, beginning in 1973 with Jonah and the Whale, a cantata by Dominick Argento. Argento, who came from Pennsylvania to teach at the University of Minnesota, had some initial misgivings about his heartland adventure. "I felt like I was committing artistic suicide," he says. "But little by little, I started to like the place." After his From the Diary of Virginia Woolf won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1974, he discovered that he liked it enough to turn down offers from Berkeley, Eastman, Peabody, and Juilliard to retain his berth at the U.

Though he is not equally impressed by all of the Twin Cities' musical organizations--he finds the SPCO's dearth of local commissions "a little snooty"--Argento recognizes Minnesota's appetite for new, homegrown music. He illustrates with a story about his best-known opera, The Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe. The head of a New York opera company, having read the review of the Minnesota premiere in Time, flew down to Baltimore for its performance there. "It's a terrific opera," he told Argento, "but it's too sophisticated for my audience."

"Too sophisticated for a New York audience? I thought New York audiences were the ne plus ultra of audiences," Argento says. "But I understand (now) what he was saying. For New York audiences, 'going to the opera' is the thing to do. But audiences here go to the opera because they're interested in the opera."

Argento's newest opus--still in progress at this writing--will inaugurate the Minnesota Orchestra's first European tour next season. The MO--which won this year's ASCAP/Morton Gould Award for Innovative Programming--commissioned the work especially for the tour. "When the orchestra plays Mozart," says Music Director Eiji Oue, "they play immediately the Mozart sound. Same with Beethoven. I want to achieve that when we play Argento. Argento is one composer I would spend the rest of my life to find. And I believe that when we go outside of the country, we should bring the work of an American composer."

It's the orchestra's work with American composers, especially its annual Perfect Pitch program (a collaboration with the St. Paul-based American Composers Forum) and Triple Play program (presented with the Walker Arts Center and the McPhail Center), which drew the eyes of the ASCAP-award jury. Could this kind of support for new music--or a whole series devoted to it, like Brunelle's--have happened anywhere else in the U.S.?

"I have some real doubts," Brunelle replies. "The climate in the Twin Cities for the arts is so unique. I think what might have happened in another city would have been, 'Yes, Phillip, you can do this, but every year has got to include Handel's Messiah, and it's got to include Mendelssohn's Elijah. And then you can do one other, unusual one.' That I could see in a lot of places. But to say that we're going to do this kind of program, and to believe that there will be an audience for it, would be highly unlikely."

Argento, his community boosterism notwithstanding, is less sure. "I think it could have had there been a Phillip Brunelle there," he says. "It could not have happened anywhere without one."

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