What does Lexington Philharmonic’s first female conductor have planned for orchestra?

Mélisse Brunet has been waiting more than three long months for Saturday night.

In mid-July, the Lexington Philharmonic revealed the conductor’s historic appointment as the new music director of the orchestra, the city’s flagship arts organization. Brunet will be the first woman to wield the baton as the philharmonic’s artistic head, and her debut concert in that role is Saturday at the University of Kentucky’s Singletary Center for the Arts.

“I’m so excited to finally do music, because it’s been three months of a lot of work, but not yet a lot of music,” says Brunet, a native of Paris, France. “And being there finally, at that first rehearsal with the musicians and being able to thank them, to talk to them, and to play music together, it’s going to be very special. I’ve been waiting for that so long, and it felt like it’s never going to happen, but finally, it’s happening. So those first notes and to see the crowd at the concert — I’m really excited for people to come … and to share music with them.”

In those three months, the story of Brunet’s appointment has become a bit of a legend. She came to Lexington at the end of a COVID-extended music director search that had started in 2019 following the departure of Scott Terrell, who led the orchestra for 10 years. She was a substitute conductor at the Phil’s May concert for a music director candidate who had withdrawn from consideration. The orchestra engaged Brunet with the mutual understanding that she was not seeking the music director post, and she was not being considered for it.

But then Brunet and the Philharmonic began making music together, and the guest conducting gig quickly transformed into a job interview, and ultimately an offer.

In July, Brunet called it, “the best story ever, in my life.”

“I’m really excited for people to come … and to share music with them,” says Melisse Brunet, the first female conductor in the 61 year history of the the Lexington Philharmonic.
“I’m really excited for people to come … and to share music with them,” says Melisse Brunet, the first female conductor in the 61 year history of the the Lexington Philharmonic.
New conductor Melisse Brunet will lead the Lexington Philharmonic in its first full-orchestra performance of the season on Saturday at the Singletary Center.
New conductor Melisse Brunet will lead the Lexington Philharmonic in its first full-orchestra performance of the season on Saturday at the Singletary Center.

Concerts after COVID

The ensuing months have been ones of anticipation and planning, including auditioning new musicians for the orchestra, which is still in a process of emerging. The pandemic canceled live concerts for more than a year and, combined with the extended music director search, created a season of uncertainty for the philharmonic.

Brunet says the pandemic had a broader impact on the orchestra as a whole than her and her entrance into the job — although, who knows if the conductor and orchestra would have even met if all had gone according to plan and the new director was appointed in 2020?

“It’s still there,” Brunet says of the pandemic and the tension it creates. “But I remember, last year at this time, there were still talks about, ‘What should we do? Should we do that concert? Not do that concert?’

“I feel that this year, it probably is the first season that it looks a bit normal, and it was a great time to get started here.”

Lexington Philharmonic Conductor Melisse Brunet during rehearsal Wednesday at the Singletary Center. Brunet wasn’t an initial candidate for the job.
Lexington Philharmonic Conductor Melisse Brunet during rehearsal Wednesday at the Singletary Center. Brunet wasn’t an initial candidate for the job.

Planning the next season

She starts with a diverse program in a number of ways, opening with Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Three Latin American Dances.” On Instagram, Brunet reveled in finding the “huge impact of Nadia Boulanger’s classes” in Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, which the orchestra will be playing. “USA-France for a win.”

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She is also excited to work for the first time with Simone Porter, the soloist on Samuel Barber’s iconic “Violin Concerto.”

The 2022-23 season was mostly set before Brunet’s arrival, but she says she is already deep into work on the 2023-24 season, which will be the first selected by her.

“I already have plans that I’ve shared with the administration of involving more of the community in some decision making, to get to know exactly what is Lexington, what do they need from an orchestra?” Brunet says.

Getting to know Lexington

Another historic aspect of Brunet’s appointment is that she is the first philharmonic music director whose primary residence is not Lexington. These days, it is very common for music directors to have multiple ensembles under their direction and other positions. Brunet lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where she is director of orchestral studies at the University of Iowa, and she is also the music director of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Brunet says holding an academic post and leading the philharmonic, which has deep associations with the University of Kentucky and other area colleges and universities, gives her a great perspective on academic and professional music and the interplay between them.

“I really love that concept, that it’s so intertwined, and I really appreciate also that many of the musicians in the orchestra teach at UK,” Brunet says, noting she has already connected with UK Symphony Orchestra director John Nardolillo.

She has made several trips to Lexington since accepting the job, including an incognito visit to the orchestra’s annual July 3rd patriotic concert and a more open visit to Picnic with the Pops in August, a trip which also included things like meetings and photo shoots.

Mélisse Brunet went on an impromptu horse farm visit with Philharmonic Board President Carol McLeod to discuss the open music director job while Brunet was in town filling in for a candidate that canceled.
Mélisse Brunet went on an impromptu horse farm visit with Philharmonic Board President Carol McLeod to discuss the open music director job while Brunet was in town filling in for a candidate that canceled.

Brunet says she keeps up with happenings in Lexington through online meetings, news sites and social media, and people can keep up with her through her Instagram and Facebook accounts, where you can find out about things like her adventures in surfing.

But, Brunet says, the real key will be making the most of her time in Lexington.

“I will be coming to town not only for the series, when there are concerts, but also for other weeks, when there are no concerts, and, you know, just be there in the community, go out, go see performances, exhibitions, games, go to restaurants, meet people, and all of that,” Brunet says.

“But we never know where life is going to bring me, and maybe at one point, I will be coming to live in Lexington.”

This weekend is just the beginning.

Rich Copley was a Herald-Leader arts and entertainment reporter and editor for more than 20 years, including covering the Philharmonic’s last two music directors.

Melisse Brunet, the first female conductor in the 61 year history of the the Lexington Philharmonic, held rehearsal Wednesday at the Singletary Center.
Melisse Brunet, the first female conductor in the 61 year history of the the Lexington Philharmonic, held rehearsal Wednesday at the Singletary Center.

Lexington Philharmonic

What: Mélisse Brunet’s debut concert as the Lexington Philharmonic’s new music director, featuring violin soloist Simone Porter with works by Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Gabriela Lena Frank.

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22

Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

Tickets: $25-$75, $11 students and ages 17 and younger

Online: lexphil.org

Call: 859-233-4226

Notes: Pre-concert talk with Brunet and Porter at 6:45 p.m. in the Singletary Center recital hall.