A couple of bad breaks brought Melisse Brunet back to Charleston.
Brunet is filling in for West Virginia Symphony music director Lawrence Loh, who will miss the symphony’s first show of 2022 Saturday night at the Clay Center after contracting a mild case of COVID-19.
Brunet will be conducting the orchestra through its “Winter Stories” program, which includes a side-by-side performance with the West Virginia Youth Symphony. The show also features flutist and Astral Artist Annie Wu, who will be debuting contemporary composer Kevin Puts’ Flute Concerto.
It’s a lot to take on — and the performance is one of the symphony’s occasional “pay what you wish” concerts, which means almost anyone can afford to see the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra play.
Speaking over the phone from her home in Iowa, Brunet, her French accent showing, said it was a case of good luck after bad luck that she was able to fill in for Loh.
“I was supposed to conduct a concert in Connecticut this past weekend, but that was postponed because of COVID,” she said. “Because of that, I was able to say ‘yes’ to West Virginia.”
Brunet, who guest-hosted with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra in the fall of 2019, said this was the second time in about a month that she’s been asked to fill in for another conductor.
“The first was in early December,” she said. “I just couldn’t make it happen. They called me on the 6th and needed me to be there by the 8th.”
Brunet said a documentary film crew from Los Angeles was on its way to visit her.
“I could not reschedule everything,” she said.
Filling in for another conductor on short notice is a challenge. There’s not a lot of wiggle room with changing programs. The guests have already been booked, and the musicians have rehearsed what they’re expected to play.
“Sometimes, you don’t even have the score at home,” Brunet said.
The conductor said there was some discussion about making some changes to the program, particularly the flute concerto by Puts, which Brunet said she wasn’t overly familiar with.
“But it’s such a great piece,” she said. “The orchestra has prepared it. The guest has prepared it, and I thought it was such a great piece to share with the community.”
Brunet’s last visit to Charleston was only a few months before the start of pandemic. She had good memories of her time with the orchestra, and Loh is a friend and mentor.
The two met years ago. Brunet took over as artistic director of the North East Pennsylvania Philharmonic after Loh left to join the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.
Brunet was in Paris when the pandemic began to take hold. She was attending a conductor’s competition, but Brunet said she was only visiting.
“I’ve lived in the states for 12 years. This is home now,” she said.
As COVID flared, Brunet had to race to find a flight back to the U.S., where she spent the year doing more teaching online than performing.
She also improved her cooking skills, took Chinese language lessons and learned to juggle — something she said she’d wanted to do for years.
With the year ahead, Brunet said she expected to continue to be busy teaching and conducting in Iowa, Pennsylvania and who knows where else.
She was glad to be coming back to West Virginia to work with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra. Her earlier visit was a good one.
“It was fantastic,” she said. “I had such a nice time. The symphony was very nice and very eager to play great music. It was a blast.”
Meanwhile, Loh is resting and recovering. He said he plans to be back with the symphony for its Feb. 12 show.