One of the first things Elise Brunelle did as the new executive director of the Vermont Symphony was to personally call all the VSO musicians.
“That’s the core of the business,” Brunelle said during a recent in-depth interview at the VSO’s Burlington office.
“We are here for the musicians to play the incredible music that they can play,” she said. “I wanted to know, first of all where you are with the VSO, what’s your history?
“But also, tell me the things that the VSO has done that you wish we would do again. What are those things that make you think, why has the VSO never done that? What are the things that you don’t want to do?”
Brunelle took the reins of the VSO last month replacing Ben Cadwallader, who after four years, left in February to become executive of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Brunelle was chosen through a competitive search process by a six-person committee of board members, staff and musicians. Coming from her position of managing director of the Cape Town Opera in South Africa, the Minnesota native started in early September, and hit the ground running.
On Tuesday, the VSO announced its 2020-21 season through January featuring four concerts, all streamed online. “Music for Days Like This,” hosted by composer and VSO New Music Adviser David Ludwig, Nov. 21 and Dec. 19, interweaves the traditional with the unexpected, drawing a parallel to present day experiences through chamber ensemble performances. “Jukebox,” the popular informal series hosted by composer and VSO Creative Projects Chairman Matt LaRocca, returns Oct. 17 and Jan. 16, live-streamed from the Burlington nightclub ArtsRiot.
These concerts give the VSO a welcome presence, as did 14 live outdoor chamber music concerts, presented throughout the state this summer.
“I’m finding a widespread desire, as soon as we can, to go back to the main stage with the larger symphonic works,” Brunelle said of her discussions with the musicians. “It’s like snacking your way through the year — you miss a meal.”
But some musicians are nervous going where some of the country’s other professional orchestras are going, with large ensembles performing live together anyway.
“They just don’t want to be pushed into something that’s unsafe,” Brunelle said. “If that means we aren’t doing Brahms right now, that’s what we’re not doing. Because, at the end, I want everybody to be alive and this organization to have its doors open and money in the bank to pay them to do the work. It just won’t be right now.
“The bottom line is: patience,” Brunelle said. “And I’m finding a huge amount of good will.”
Still, even streamed concerts present difficulties for the VSO.
“First of all, half of your musicians are out of state so they can’t come here,” Brinelle said. The fall concerts might employ 25% of the orchestra’s musicians.
“We have an obligation to these musicians, that as much as we possibly can, to pay them to play, pay them to create. In the short period of time, what can we do?” Brunelle said. “So also, we integrate them into the educational programs we’re doing. We absolutely have to.
Another big challenge Brunelle is facing is that the VSO’s music director of 20 years, Jaime Laredo, is leaving at the end of the 2021 season. A search began before Cadwallader left.
“We have to put off our search because there isn’t an orchestra to put candidates in front of,” Brunelle said. “But the situation is the same for everyone. It’s just literally getting them into ... ‘classrooms’ because we have to. You can’t do what I was fortunate to do — they hired me through Zoom.”
Fortunately, the VSO ‘s finances were in pretty good shape when Brunelle arrived. And that’s one of Brunelle’s favorite parts of the job.
“I happen to love fundraising, I think finance committees are exciting. I know that what I’m good at is the organization of a nonprofit, running that,” she said. “I’m not the one who is going to have the informed conversation as to whether or not we’re performing Brahms in a particular concert. That’s what the Jaimes of the world, and the musicians are wonderful at.”
Already, Brunelle feels the VSO finances are in order — for now.
“I’m very happy to say that after a month,” she said, “we now have a positive cash flow for our financial year, we have a complete and comprehensive overview of our liabilities, we have a plan for repayment, and we will abide by no less than our contractual obligation to the entire musicians that are contracted by the VSO.”
Coming from South Africa and a much larger organization was a big change for Brunelle. Her personal attraction to Vermont was the people, the seasons and the mountains, and to the VSO, its statewide mission.
“I think you can’t have a statewide orchestra that’s not present throughout the state, so I loved that ownership of it,” Brunelle said. With “its long-term history here and where its roots came from, it is deeply embedded and entrenched in the fabric of the state. It was the size of organization I wanted to work with. And top quality musicianship. How would you not want to work with that?
“I definitely wanted to make sure that when I came back to the states I moved somewhere and worked with an organization I can stay with,” Brunelle said. “I’ve had such incredibly warm welcomes — and willingness to try just about anything.