The Vermont Symphony Orchestra named its new executive director today. Elise Brunelle will come directly to Vermont from her position as managing director of the Cape Town Opera in South Africa.
“I am thrilled that Elise has accepted the position,” said VSO Music Director Jaime Laredo. “From everything that I have read and heard about her, she sounds fabulous and should be a great leader for our beloved VSO.”
“I feel really honored to have this opportunity,” Brunelle said. “I have so many ideas, so many things I want to do. More than anything, I want to talk with people in Vermont’s communities to find out what they would like to see from their VSO.”
Barbara Wessel, VSO board chairwoman, who conducted a private interview, was particularly impressed with Brunelle’s professionalism.
“She exuded a sense of competence,” Wessel said. “I feel that we are so fortunate to have someone of her caliber with a background in both fundraising and financial management, as well as proven professional success and wanting to be with us.”
The position opened up when Ben Cadwallader, the VSO’s executive director of four year years, stepped down in February to take a similar position with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Brunelle was chosen through a competitive search process by a six-person committee of board members, staff and musicians. She will start at the VSO between mid-August and early September, depending on travel restrictions as consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of Brunelle’s first challenges will be to oversee the remainder of the current music director search, as 2020-21 will be Laredo’s last season after 20 years at the helm of the state’s professional symphony orchestra. VSO performances will resume when determined safe by government health and safety officials.
Brunelle comes to the VSO from South Africa’s largest nonprofit performing arts organization. She spent 16 years with the Cape Town Opera, previously as fundraiser and financial manager, and most recently as managing director. Under her leadership, the company expanded its international touring in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa; expanded youth and education programs; commissioned and produced 16 new South African operas; increased singer recruitment from regional townships; and stabilized company finances.
“She seems to know how to get money — which inspires confidence in people — as well as to use it well,” Wessel said. “You don’t always get that combination of the understanding of the business and the passion for the arts.”
“I just think we’re very fortunate with someone presenting themself with just what we need,” Wessel said.
Before her tenure at Cape Town Opera, Brunelle held leadership positions at Global Art Information, the University of Minnesota School of Music, Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.
Growing up in Minnesota, Brunelle’s father was a conductor, and she was a violinist at the time. She and her husband wanted to return to the United States in part because their daughter is about to enter high school. Brunelle was already familiar with Vermont, having spent a summer working backstage at Weston Playhouse.
“We just felt that this was the right place for us and along came the ad,” Brunelle told Wessel.
“I think of her as sincere. I think of her as capable. I think of her as believable,” Wessel said of Brunelle. “When they did the reference-checking, they described her as ‘no nonsense.’ She’s going to be someone who makes things work.”
Currently the VSO is presenting small outdoor ensemble concerts throughout the state, as well as its Virtual Summer Festival Tour today through July 5, sharing photos and memories from tours of the past as well as Music for at-home enjoyment.