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When the baton of the Lexington Philharmonic was passed to her in 2022, Mélisse Brunet knew she wanted to bring the city and orchestra together in an expansive way.
That meant peppering an already daring repertoire with music that, on occasion, goes pop.
On Valentine’s night, that will translate to the Philharmonic getting its groove on with a program titled “Feel the Love! The Voices of Soul.”
The objective: summon the spirit, songs and soul inspirations of Aretha Franklin.
“I don’t want to be a snob and just bring music to a certain category of people,” Brunet said. “Our mission is to be relevant to everybody in the community and bring in music that everybody loves at one point or another. But we also want to help other people discover music they would not know they might love. We have subscribers who are not used to pops music but are now trying it, as well as subscribers who only know, for example, Aretha Franklin’s music and might say after the show on Wednesday, ‘Yeah, I might like to try a different concert.’ So it’s also that moment of education and opening horizons to music, be it pops or what we call ‘classical’ — and I don’t like that word. I hate that word.”
Come again? A celebrated Paris-born conductor featured prominently in the 2023 documentary “Maestra” doesn’t care for the term that has defined the centuries-wide repertoire of most orchestras?
“I don’t think it reflects the music that I love and the music that we do,” Brunet said. “It’s a restrictive and not appealing word, even for me and I’m in that field. I think what defines what we do more is ‘orchestra music’ because then it encompasses lots of things. A lot of people are scared and dislike this music because it’s called classical. It’s intimidating. It’s a very intimidating word. It’s simply music. Orchestra music. And that’s what we do.”
So what challenges does a pops program augmented by Broadway-bred guest vocalists to perform works popularized by the great Franklin present to Brunet and the Philharmonic that might not be confronted in a more expected program of classical ... er, orchestra music?
“I think maybe for some conductors and musicians, it might present challenges if you did not grow up with that music or if you don’t feel groove. I was very lucky that my first love in music was for jazz. I grew up in France, so I grew up with jazz. I listened to jazz all the time. I listened to a lot of gospel music. I think a huge quality of American music and ‘classical’ American composers is that strong sense of rhythm. It comes naturally.
“Now, sharing that with all of the musicians means you need to spend a lot time in terms of relaxing, relaxing the beats, and thinking in terms of groove. We read a lot of the music in our field. There is a lot of reading, but I need to bring everybody to where they are feeling rather than reading, but feeling it together. Generally, though, our musicians are really used to playing pops. It’s part of the American DNA to have a great sense of rhythm and groove. It’s never too much of a challenge.”
When asked if she had a favorite among Franklin’s many soul/R&B hits, Brunet laughed and admitted whittling the choice down to one is, as it would be for many of Franklin’s fans, impossible.
“First of all, I love to listen to her albums and her songs and watch her videos because her energy and her authenticity are, how do you say, contagious? There is something so perfect about her sense of groove and soul. Everything is just perfect. It makes me happy.
“But Aretha is also the kind of artist where it is hard to find just one favorite piece. You go to ‘Think’ and go, ‘Oh, yeah. I love this piece.’ Then you go to ‘Natural Woman’ and it’s ‘but I love this one, too.’ Every one of her pieces make you feel very excited, but at the same time they have different atmospheres. There are different things happening, so the music is never redundant.”
Emphasizing the latter remark is the fact the repertoire for the “Feel the Love! The Voices of Soul” will also cover iconic moments Franklin summoned onstage. Among them, her gospel revision of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (a centerpiece to what remains, arguably, Franklin’s finest album, 1971’s “Aretha Live at Fillmore West”), her solemn delivery of “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Misérables” (Franklin performed it at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton) and her stand-in delivery of the operatic “Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammy Awards (as a last-minute replacement for Luciano Pavarotti).
“We are doing all of those very big moments that changed people’s lives.”
“Feel the Love! The Voices of Soul” also represents a series of firsts for Brunet and her still-blooming tenure with the Philharmonic. It will be her first mid-week featured concert (a risky bit of programming necessitated by Valentine’s Day falling on a Wednesday), her first time conducting at the Opera House (although the Philharmonic staged pops performances at the venue during the 2010s) and her first Lexington performance as an American citizen. A Paris native who has worked in the United States for 14 years, her citizenship was finalized last week.
“Yesterday, I arrived in town and went to my favorite dry cleaner in the country. When you do concerts, you need good dry cleaners. I was talking to someone there and a man entered and said, ‘Oh, you’re French.’ I said, ‘Well, actually, I’m an American since Monday.’ He said, ‘Oh, my wife and I love you and love going to the concerts.’
“Every time I’m here, working with the orchestra and within the community, has been a real dream. It’s just a joy.”
The Lexington Philharmonic presents “Feel the Love! The Voices of Soul”
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 14
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short