BY Bill Walsh
When John Henry and now-Alderman Kitty Brunjes quizzed their young son about what musical instrument he would like to play — all the while making it abundantly clear that “none of the above” was not an option — the then-7-year-old Joby chose the piano. “I thought to myself well what’s the biggest thing I can think of?” Brunjes says. “Piano. I want to play piano. My parents didn’t have a piano.
“They sort of steered me to the violin ” he recalls these years later. “They told me my first violin lesson was the following week. I went and watched a violin recital downtown and afterward they had a little sort of ‘petting zoo ’ where they let me hold the violin. I just took off from there. But it was not a smooth process as many parents will attest.”
But likely not very rough either given how it has turned out. A violinist of enormous talent Brunjes is a member of the string faculty at UNCW a member of the Atlantean Trio featuring fellow UNCW music faculty members Richard Thomas and Barry David Salwen is in frequent demand as a soloist across the Cape Fear region has steady gigs with the Long Bay Symphony Orchestra in Myrtle Beach and the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra and gives private instruction to about 25 students. As if that is not enough Brunjes founded the Oleander Chamber Orchestra last year.
That bold step has muted his violin virtuosity just a tad; there are only so many hours in a day after all. Within them Brunjes nurtures his budding orchestra as business manager orchestra director hand-holder general factotum and most importantly conductor.
Still “I want to continue to be active as a performer because I find that it keeps my ears sharp ” he says. “Just practicing and playing and having to be responsible for your own notes keeps your ear able to hear intonation and pitch and articulation. But conducting is my main interest; I think I am a better conductor than anything else.”
Brunjes holds the paperwork — a master’s degree in conducting from the North Carolina School of the Arts — to back up his claim. He also earned a graduate professional diploma in conducting from the prestigious Hartt School in Hartford Conn. Those degrees are in addition to bachelor and master’s degrees in violin performance.
Fairly early in his development as a musician Brunjes determined that he liked hearing the entire performance somewhat more than playing just a part in it. “When you play in a section you don’t hear everything. I started getting interested in being in control of the whole thing of wanting to have my interpretation of how things sound.
“My first attempts consisted of putting together a group of six or seven people and saying play this through with me and let me wave my arms and see what happens. I found out that I have a pretty good memory of what was supposed to come next and reading the score was not as hard as I thought it would be. I said once before that I wanted to play the biggest instrument possible when I was a kid ” he says — and conducting is in a sense playing that instrument.
There is nothing like its thrill he says. “You get the best seat in the house. And to be able to connect with the people who are playing is really wonderful.”
There are conductors — quite a lot of them actually — who do not hold degrees in the art Brunjes says “and conducting is thought of as something that people can just pick up and do. What I have learned is that is really not the case.
“A conductor has to be a person that the orchestra can respect and believe in and wants to play for. They have to know the music well enough to be able to tell the players if they make a mistake. They have to have an imagination that gives them an interpretation of the music that most of the players will agree with and follow. They have to be a public person that the audience and the general public can get to know. They have to be diplomatic because you are conducting this beast with…25 egos. And they have to have a physical ability to be able to show what they want without talking. They have to be able to communicate with their hands.”
His mentor at the Hartt School taught him not to waste rehearsal time by talking Brunjes says. “If you can show what you want then you don’t have to stop the whole group and talk about things. And orchestras don’t like conductors who talk all the time. They are there to play; they aren’t there to be educated. They probably know the piece better than you do anyway so it is best to just let them play but use your hands in a way that gives them a chance to play together and to play what you want.”
Playing what he wants and playing it the way he wants it are important but the larger goal is to change the tune of Wilmington’s musical environment.
“What I’d like it to be is an orchestra that has a number of concerts per year an orchestra that attracts more professionals to the area ” Brunjes says. In general Wilmington offers a nurturing environment for the arts but music has lagged.
“For a long time Wilmington has been less interesting for musicians because there have been less money-making opportunities for them ” Brunjes says. “But I have looked around at towns Wilmington’s size and found many that had established full orchestras. Myrtle Beach for example. I don’t think of Myrtle Beach as having more culture than we do.”
Wilmington may be primed just waiting for the baton to fall but still it’s a challenge not the least of which is keeping costs down. That is difficult when many of the players are coming from afar.
For the orchestra’s debut concert at First Presbyterian Church in October two-thirds of the 15 players came from somewhere else. Overnight stays are expensive. Coupling that with rehearsal needs is enough to put a conductor off his tempo. Brunjes held only one Friday and two Saturday rehearsals for his first concert. The reviews attested to the quality of the work the musicians put in.
“I have to keep the cost relatively low but still have enough rehearsals so that the product is good ” Brunjes says. “That’s a juggling act that pretty much every orchestra has to deal with. If more people lived here I could have more rehearsals over a larger period of time which would give people more of a chance to learn the music and feel comfortable with it. I’d love that.”
The first concert was largely underwritten by investment banking firm Ferris Baker Watts. The second Feb. 4 at St. Andrews Covenant Presbyterian Church on Market Street
featured the music of Greig Elgar and Dvorak was also supported by donations though not by a single major benefactor.
Brunjes is realistic. “A town of this size cannot support professional musicians; they have to do other things ” the expert multi-tasker says. “But to have an orchestra in town that pays on a pretty stable basis just does wonders for the community. It benefits the public schools it benefits the youth orchestras in town. There is no reason why Wilmington can’t provide the musical opportunities that towns of similar size in the state are providing.”
I want to continue to be active as a performer because I find that it keeps my ears sharp ” conductor Joby Brunjes says. “Just practicing and playing and having to be responsible for your own notes keeps your ears able to hear intonation and pitch and articulation.”
The intonation and pitch and articulation of his 200-year-old violin is music to the ears of all who hear it. Made by Dutch craftsman Johannes Cuypers in 1807 Brunjes bought the instrument from the non-playing daughter of a deceased violinist who had owned it for eight years. When he picked it up to try last fall it hadn’t been played in two years and in fact had been left for some time in a car in Atlanta.
“It’s not related to that but I think it’s interesting ” Brunjes says “that my insurance covers everything about the violin except nuclear war…and leaving it in my car.”
The instrument was pricey but most of the high-priced violins that make headlines are Italian he said. Most of the costliest bows — and they can go for $100 000 and more — are French.
Musical instruments at this level are investments not expenses. Brunjes says that a violin such as his Cuypers can be expected to increase in value by five to 20 percent annually. — Bill Walsh
The Language of Music
There are few things we’d rather be able to do as adults than play a musical instrument with competence. There are few things we’d rather do less as children than log the practice hours that would make that possible.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice practice practice. “Sometimes I tell them that it’s not the student’s choice whether they keep playing or not ” Joby Brunjes says of his advice to the struggling parents of reluctant musicians. “Music teaches a lot of life lessons. Not every student has to become a concert soloist but the lessons that are learned the discipline and the commitment and all that is something they can use all their lives.”
Brunjes and his wife Rachel also an accomplished violinist both teach and both adhere to the Suzuki method which in its simplest terms attempts to allow a student to learn musical ability in much the same way he or she once acquired language ability.
“In language learning you learn the language that is in your environment ” Rachel Brunjes explains. “If you speak Japanese at home your children are going to learn to speak Japanese. If you have the language of music in the home environment then it is going to be something that is easily picked up.
“It is picked up by the ear before it is picked up by the eye so we start with listening and just creating the musical environment — playing recordings at home attending recitals and watching other people’s lessons. Then the student can start learning to play the instrument. As rudimentary knowledge of the instrument is formed that’s when reading can begin.” — Bill Walsh