August 6th, 2014
Over the July 4th holiday, A Prairie Home Companion celebrated 40 years on the radio. Philip Brunelle, who was on the very first show in 1974, reflects on his long and fruitful collaboration with the beloved public radio program.
Chorus America: Take us back to the beginning. How did you get the opportunity to be on A Prairie Home Companion?
Philip Brunelle: Forty years ago VocalEssence was in its infancy, and I was also at the time the music director at Minnesota Opera. Garrison, whom I had never met, called me up and said he was looking for somebody who knew classical music and hymns. I said, “Yes, that’s me.” He asked, “Do you really know a lot of hymns?” I said, “Every hymn you know, I know. The question will be, who knows more verses.”
So I went on the very first show. I think there was an audience of 10 to 15 people. I realized that, with everything else I was doing, I didn’t have the time to devote to being the music director of the show. But whenever they needed a classically trained pianist to accompany the soloists I would go on.
Pretty soon, Garrison asked the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers to come on to do skits involving choral music. Our singers became regulars and later we did recordings together with Garrison. It has been a very long and wonderful relationship. And the great thing is, it brought to this audience of six or seven million people the knowledge of how wonderful choral music is.
Is the show as we know it now similar to how it was in the beginning?
Yes. The difference in the beginning was that it wasn’t timed. The show lasted two hours and it was a little bit thrown together in those days. And even now, it is very much in the moment. I remember coming in with the Ensemble Singers with a particular piece of music ready to go, and Garrison said, “No, I don’t think so. What else have you got?” I said, “Well, I have this Poulenc song,” and he said, “Yes, let’s do that.” He didn’t even ask to hear it first.
Then at the station break half way through, he might just juggle the whole thing around again. And every time he does that juggling around, it always improves it. He has a wonderful sense about how the flow of a program should go.
That flow is something I am fond of too. I think programming, whether it’s a choral concert or a radio show, is vital to your success. And the music and the program have to touch on the human condition—just like the fictitious town of Lake Wobegon and all those wonderful characters do.
What kinds of music did the Ensemble Singers do on the show?
Folk songs, classical pieces from Bach to Poulenc, and a lot of pieces by Minnesota composers, like Dominick Argento and Stephen Paulus. And Garrison would often create for us funny lyrics for familiar music—a Strauss waltz, perhaps, with lyrics about the city of St. Paul. You’d get those a day or two before the show, but he would often change it once he heard it, to make it better.
Garrison loves the human voice, and he knows his audience, and he knows when a change is needed. To be on the show, you had to be flexible. I often told the singers, “You will know at 7 pm when the show is over what songs you’re going to sing.”
Did being on A Prairie Home Companion help raise the visibility of VocalEssence?
It sure did. We have great concert attendance, but not in the millions that can hear you on that radio show. It was definitely a wonderful thing for us.
What else have you learned during your long association with Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion?
The importance of reaching an audience with diverse programming. That’s one of the great things about Garrison. You could hear in a week a string quartet, a bluegrass band, an opera singer, a choral ensemble, a blues performer. His goal was to have this diversity of music, and all of it first class.
There are people in the classical field who hear you say “country and western,” and they pooh-pooh it. They shouldn’t. Not when it is an A-plus performer. To hear somebody like Chet Atkins—it’s a totally different genre than what I do, but wow! Or to hear someone like Marilyn Horne come on and sing a beautiful Rossini aria and then turn around and be part of some very silly skit. People say, “Oh, those people are human too.“
You want your programs to be the finest you can deliver, but you also want them to appeal to as wide an audience as you can. That really comes across with A Prairie Home Companion and I have definitely taken that to heart.
The VocalEssence Ensemble Singers are featured on three CDs with Garrison Keillor:
Over the River & Through the Woods, Hymn to Potatoes (and other choral masterpieces from A Prairie Home Companion), and their newest concert recording, Gratitude, Gravy & Garrison. Find them at this link.