By GARY DEMUTH
Inspired by her grandfather, who fought the fascist armies in Spain during World War II, French-born conductor and musician Mélisse Brunet considers herself a fighter.
“I’m not afraid of fighting for what I believe I deserve,” she said. “It’s part of my identity.”
Now she’s fighting for a highly contested position in Salina as the second of five candidates vying to be permanent conductor/music director of the Salina Symphony.
Brunet is the lone female conductor candidate among the five finalists, but that doesn’t intimidate her.
“It’s a difficult profession for both men and women,” she said. “You have to have a high work ethic, you have to fight but be kind to others, and you can’t ever give up.”
The second concert in the “Pass the Baton!” music director search season of 2021-2022, “Give Birth to the Dream,” conducted by Brunet, begins at 4 p.m. Nov. 7 in the Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts, 151 S. Santa Fe.
“Give Birth to the Dream” is an ideal concert program for these times, Brunet said.
“After going through a year of COVID, you really want to give a message of hope and resilience,” she said. “I want people to leave this concert with their eyes shining like they’re seven years old, so happy that they’ve forgotten what’s been bothering them.”
The program will feature guest soprano Janie Brokenicky, a Manhattan resident, in a performance of French composer Charles Gounod’s “Ah! Je veux vivre” from the opera “Romeo and Juliet.” Brokenicky also will be featured on composer Dolores White’s inspiring tone poem “Give Birth to the Dream,” based on Maya Angelou’s famed presidential inaugural poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” and narrated by the Reverend Allen Smith, pastor of Salina’s St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church.
Also on the program will be Salina Symphony performances of Camille Saint-Saen's “Danse Macabre” and Joan Tower’s “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, No. 1.” The concert will conclude with Ludwig van Beethoven’s immortal “Symphony No. 7.”
Brunet said the program will be a wonderful showcase for all the talents of the Salina Symphony orchestra.
“I picked these pieces so all the sections of the orchestra could shine,” she said. “The strings on Beethoven, and the wind instruments on other pieces. I felt it was important for me to know the entire orchestra, their strengths and weaknesses. I will learn many things about them through these pieces.”
Escape through music
A native of Paris, Brunet began her studies in music on the cello. She also plays trumpet, French horn and piano.
“I had a challenging childhood, and the only place I was happy was playing the cello,” she said. “Music was my escape, the place where I could really express myself, a healing place for me.”
A graduate of the Paris Conservatory and the Université la Sorbonne, Brunet also has a professional studies diploma from the Cleveland Institute of Music and a doctorate in conducting from the University of Michigan.
Brunet is director of orchestral activities at the University of Iowa School of Music, where she conducts the college’s orchestras in symphonic concerts, operas and musical theater and teaches orchestral conducting to master and doctoral students. From 2016 to 2021, she was director of orchestral activities at the Hayes School of Music at Appalachian State University, where she received the prestigious 2019 Outstanding Teaching Excellence Award.
She also is the music director of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic, an orchestra of freelance musicians from the New York City and Philadelphia areas.
“I started conducting in different countries, but I’ve been living in the U.S. for the last 12 years,” Brunet said. “I’ve had great training, and I think I’m able to bring a European view of music to the orchestras I work with. I like to think outside the box.”
As an opera and musical theater conductor, Brunet has helmed productions of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti,” Menotti’s “The Old Maid and the Thief,” Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”
“I love any opportunity I have to do musical theater and opera,” she said.
Brunet said she applied for the Salina Symphony music director/conductor position because she was impressed with the Salina Symphony’s forward-looking staff and board, its dedicated community musicians, and its emphasis on youth education.
“They have great leadership here, a good team and a good board,” she said. “They put a lot into education, which I love because I’ve been teaching since I was 17.”
The ideal music director for the Salina Symphony, Brunet said, should be focused on both communication and community.
“You need a conductor who can communicate and also be a part of the community,” she said. “Through the arts, a community can grow. The arts help in so many ways.”
Soprano Brokenicky has been a featured soloist at the Meyerson Symphony Hall in Dallas and the Kauffman Center and Folly Theater in Kansas City. She also has been a guest artist with the Wichita Chamber Chorale, Hays Symphony Orchestra and Flint Hills Masterworks Chorale and served six summers as artist-in-residence for the Ad Astra Summer Music Festival in Russell.
While on the vocal faculty at Kansas State University, Brokenicky performed with the K-State Symphony and played the Queen of the Night in KSU’s production of “The Magic Flute.” Last summer, she performed in the world premiere of the opera “Our Trudy,” commissioned for the sesquicentennial Prairiesta celebration in Russell.
Brokenicky, who currently is vocal music director at Rock Creek High School and executive director and co-founder of the Flint Hills Children’s Choirs in Manhattan, said this is her first time performing with the Salina Symphony.
“They’re a wonderful orchestra, especially for the size of the community,” she said. “We’re lucky to have such a great orchestra in smaller communities that showcase local musicians.”
Brokenicky hasn’t met Brunet in person yet but said “we’ve had a lot of email correspondence” about the program.
“I can tell that she has a wonderful energy about her and is inspired by the music in the program,” Brokenicky said. “(Live) music ceased for awhile, and we’re so happy to help bring it back. It’s so important to our spirit, to our way of life.”
Remaining concerts in the “Pass the Baton!” series include “Take Flight,” featuring Yaniv Segal and cellist Hannah Collins (Jan. 30); “Melodic Journey,” featuring Yaniv Attar with guest guitarist Daniel Bolshoy (March 27); and “Symphonic Dances,” featuring Vlad Vizireanu and guest pianist Lorraine Min (May 1).
Tickets for the Nov. 7 concert can be purchased at the Stiefel Theatre box office, by calling 827-1998 or going online at www.salinasymphony.org. Single admission tickets are $29 and $39 for adults and $20 for students.
Season tickets, which also includes the annual Christmas Festival concert (Dec. 11-12), may be ordered by phone at 823-8309 or in person at the Salina Symphony office on the second floor of the Stiefel Theatre.