Ep. 73: Philip Brunelle, Godfather of the Scandinavian Lutheran choral mafia

Philip Brunelle & VocalEssence; photo by John Rutter

December 15, 2020

Philip Brunelle has notoriety around the world for his musical knowledge and expertise. He discusses the motto and drink that fuel his success; other factors contributing to his personal and professional longevity; and what makes the Twin Cities a unicorn in the choral music world.

Philip Brunelle; Photo by Ann Marsden


I have the pleasure of speaking today with Philip Brunelle, a globally-recognized conductor, choral director, organist and musical entrepreneur based right here in Minneapolis. Since 1969, Philip has served as organist and choirmaster at Plymouth Congregational Church AND founder and artistic director of VocalEssence. He is the recipient of awards from Hungary, Sweden, Norway and Mexico, as well as an honorary Order of the British Empire and five honorary doctorates.


  • Philip discusses the impact of Twin Cities-area Lutheran school choirs, including Luther Collage, St. Olaf, Concordia, Gustavus, Macalester, and the U of MN.
  • As a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, Philip became the youngest member ever of the Minnesota Orchestra when he was hired as percussionist.
  • Philip was on many broadcasts of A Prairie Home Companion – including the very first and very last show. He has been with Plymouth Congregational Church and Vocal Essence for over 50 years.
  • He has rubbed shoulders with some incredibly fascinating and talented people, from Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky to Bobby McFerrin and AABA. He performed live on stage with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, and explains how he was tapped by the Stones to perform with them.

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Philip shares the story and audio(!) from the 1952 talent show he competed in (and won) at age 8 for WCCO Radio.

Closing Words

And that is a little bit of Philip Brunelle singing at age 8 for the WCCO radio talent show in 1952! Thank you so much to Philip for sharing some of his story with us today, and all he does to enhance lives with music.

Speaking of throwbacks to earlier decades, I did know that vinyl albums had become a thing again – they’ve become popular with some young people; you can buy record players. But one thing I was not aware of until recently that was that cassette players and cassettes are making a bit of a comeback, too! Which, as someone who fully lived through the cassette era, is shocking to me. Why on earth anyone would want to go back to cassettes is beyond me, with the tape that comes unraveled, and gets crimped up or tangled up in the cassette player; you have to rewind and fast forward, flip it over.  And along those same lines, when I visited my daughter who’s a freshman in college recently, I found out that disposable cameras are also popular because you have to wait to get the film developed – and I’m like, wait, that’s the whole point of the camera in your phone is you don’t HAVE to wait. There’s even an app now called Dispo where you take a picture and you can’t view it until the next day! So she’s trying to explain this to me and I’m not getting the appeal of this – I fully remember not being able to view pictures right away, and it’s way cooler to not have to wait and realize your eyes were closed! I’m tempted to say, If you really want to re-live the 80s, just give me your cell phone and we’ll put one wall-mounted, corded phone in the middle of the kitchen! But somehow, I don’t see that technology becoming popular again any time soon!

So, if you are still looking for unique gift ideas for Christmas or Hanukah, or any other event, you could get someone a disposable camera and tell them to take one picture in each month of 2021 and get it developed a year from now to see their year at a glance, and your gift may be considered the coolest gift ever. That or check into buying tape cassettes and a tape player (which I do not recommend). Or better yet, listen to Ep. 71, which is all about creative and research-backed ways to gift music, including some ways that are completely free.

Thanks to those of you who contacted me after listening to that episode to share how you were inspired – one listener is a senior in high school and listening to the gift episode just got the wheels turning in his head and he came up with the idea of looking up a local record store. He found one and checked it out and had a lot of fun, and ended up buying a Christmas gift there.

Another listener helped her grandkids adapt the 12 Days of Christmas for a Christmas gift for Grandpa, they used the same tune and changed the words. For Christmas, the grandkids are going to perform the song and also wrap up this darling printout of their lyrics; she sent me a picture of it:

She explains: “Whoppers are his stories he tells them & also gives them boxes of them at the end of each visit.”

Let me know if you come up with any creative ways to gift music, the gift that keeps on giving! You can reach me on email, social media, or my website.

Thank you so much for joining me today. Until next week, may your life be enhanced with music.

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