Melisse Brunet thought she was just picking up a last-minute guest gig in May, when she came to Lexington to lead the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra‘s season finale concert. She was stepping in for the sixth and final candidate for the orchestra’s open music director job, who had to cancel his appearance and withdrew himself from consideration for the job.
But Brunet was just coming to conduct, not to audition.
“They did not consider me as a finalist, and I did not consider myself as a finalist, which is the best story ever, in my life,” Brunet said, Friday.
That’s because everything changed when Brunet showed up in Lexington, and the Lexington Philharmonic announced that she will be the Philharmonic’s new music director, her first concert in that role Oct. 22.
Brunet will be the fifth music director in the Philharmonic’s 61-year history and the first woman in that role. She succeeds Scott Terrell, who led the orchestra from 2009 to 2019.
Lex Phil’s search interrupted by COVID
The Philharmonic had expected to name Terrell’s successor two years ago, but then the COVID pandemic interrupted the 2019-20 season of concerts led by six candidates for the job. Four hopefuls led the orchestra before the pandemic closed theaters around the country in March 2020. The search finally resumed in February and was expected to conclude in May with the visit of Keitaro Harada.
When Harada canceled his engagement with the orchestra, Search Committee Chair and Philharmonic Board President Carol McLeod said they did consider inviting another music director candidate but decided they did not have time to do the due diligence needed to identify an additional candidate. They expected that after May they would choose between the four remaining candidates, as another had removed himself from consideration after his visit in early 2020. The finalists were Thomas Heuser, Akiko Fujimoto, Julia Tai, and Kelly Corcoran, who had served as the Philharmonic’s interim artistic advisor as the orchestra provided online programming during the pandemic and started returning to live performances last Summer.
Brunet was suggested as a guest conductor by a musician in the Philharmonic who also plays with the West Virginia Symphony, which Brunet frequently guest conducts.
While everyone understood that Brunet was not a candidate for the music director post, McLeod said things started changing quickly once she began working with the musicians.
How Brunet became a candidate for the conductor job
“On Thursday, I started getting messages directly from musicians, and on Friday, about Mélisse’s qualities as a conductor,” McLeod said. “There was an immediate response, spontaneous response from the musicians telling me that I needed to come and hear her and meet, and that the search committee needed her to reevaluate its position of not including her in the search.”
McLeod recalled one musician, very out of character, jumping out of his car when he saw her at the back door of the Singletary Center for the Arts, where the Philharmonic rehearses and plays most of its concerts, and running over to sing Brunet’s praises.
And Brunet, was starting to get interested in the orchestra and Lexington as well.
“Everything was so special,” Brunet said of the week, in which rehearsals started Tuesday for a Saturday night concert, May 21. “The musicians were really eager to play great music, and they wanted to do their best, and it was great teamwork at all times. They gave me a standing ovation at the end of the dress rehearsal … and I just could tell that we had a good rapport.”
And she was taking a shine to the city as well, liking the combination of pastoral countryside that reminded her of her home in France, where some members of her family have horses, and the active downtown.
Responding to the musicians’ prompting, McLeod said she contacted the 10-member search committee and asked the ones who were not musicians in the orchestra to come to the Friday-night rehearsal so they could see Brunet at work and interact with her. She also took the conductor on an impromptu horse farm visit and talked to her about the job.
“I’m happy that it went this quick,” Brunet said. “And it also shows how open minded they are and how quick they are at making good business decisions, because in the last year, I’ve had multiple places interested in me, but very few were able to make quick moves. And for me, that tells a lot about how healthy an organization is.
“Too often our arts organizations are afraid of risk, but risk is art and risk is business.”
Brunet has shown she is not averse to risk, including making the move from her native France, where she was a protegee of renowned composer and conductor Pierre Boulez and earned six diplomas from the Paris Conservatory, to the United States to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music in 2010. A lot like Lexington, Brunet says the United States immediately clicked with her.
“I love this country,” Brunet said. “I love the people. I want to stay. There has not been one minute in 12 years I wanted to go back to France. You know, the US is home, and it has allowed me to become myself.”
Brunet says it is the kindness of people in the United States and the lack of judgment and competition that she did experience in France that has endeared her to the US
She is the Director of Orchestral Studies at the University of Iowa School of Music, and Iowa City will continue to be her primary residence. It is common for music directors to hold multiple posts, and not be full-time residents in the cities where they direct. But Brunet, who will also be in her final year leading the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic In the 2022-23 season, said she is eager to get to know Lexington and the community better, even making an incognito stop by the Philharmonic’s traditional July 3 patriotic concert on her way to conduct in West Virginia July 4.
“It’s going to take me, you know, probably a year to see where are the strengths and weaknesses and what do I want to focus on to help them develop and also to get to know the community,” Brunet said. “You know, what does the community really love? And what do I think they do not know, but they would love?”
Brunet says that the Philharmonic’s 2022-23 season was set before she was selected, but that she loves a lot of the works and artists on it, and is excited to conduct them. The 2023-24 season will be the first planned under her direction.
Brunet ‘opening doors’ for women conductors
At Iowa, like Lexington, Brunet is the first woman to hold her job. While conductors who are women are not quite the novelty they once were, the percentage of women leading orchestras at all levels in the US hovers around 10%.
Brunet says that being the first, the only, or one of few women has been a common situation throughout her career.
“I see that I’m opening doors still, in communities,” Brunet said. “And it’s my hope, also, that I can allow other younger women or people who are coming from more diverse backgrounds to realize that, ‘OK, I can do that job, too.’ I hope that it’s going to be very inspiring in Lexington as well.”
With Brunet’s appointment, all the top leadership posts at the Philharmonic will be held by women including McLeod and Executive Director Allison Kaiser. McLeod is a veterinarian who started her studies in 1976 and says “first woman to…” has been a common role in her life as well.
“I don’t actually see gender, when evaluating people, whether it’s for the position of music director or who the bank teller is,” McLeod said. “I want people who can do the job, and who are pleasant to work with.
“On the podium, off the podium, those two things have to work together to bring out the best in the orchestra and the community. And I believe that Mélisse Brunet is that person — the right person at the right time for this community.”
Rich Copley is a former arts writer and editor for the Herald-Leader who is now a Lexington-based multimedia producer.
This story was originally published July 11, 2022 9:31 AM.