Valentine’s Day concert will pay tribute to Aretha Franklin

No longer interim, Melisse Brunet is Philharmonic conductor

By Mary Therese Biebel [email protected]

			
				                                The music of the late Aretha Franklin, who passed away in 2018 at age 76, will be showcased in the PNC Pops Concert, set for Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre.
                                 AP File Photo

The music of the late Aretha Franklin, who passed away in 2018 at age 76, will be showcased in the PNC Pops Concert, set for Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre.

AP File Photo

<p>Tamika Lawrence</p>
                                 <p>Submitted image</p>

Tamika Lawrence

Submitted image

<p>Melvin Tunstall III</p>
                                 <p>Submitted image</p>

Melvin Tunstall III

Submitted image

<p>Jessica Hendy</p>
                                 <p>Submitted image</p>

Jessica Hendy

Submitted image

<p>Melisse Brunet, who just this week became conductor of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic after serving as interim conductor since 2018, is one of 12 women conductors who will compete in March in the international La Maestra competition.</p>
                                 <p>Submitted image</p>

Melisse Brunet, who just this week became conductor of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic after serving as interim conductor since 2018, is one of 12 women conductors who will compete in March in the international La Maestra competition.

Submitted image

Just about everybody knows the Queen of Soul sang “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Amazing Grace,” “Chain of Fools” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” And, of course, she won two of her 18 Grammy Awards for “Respect.”

But did you know Aretha Franklin sang the aria “Nessun Dorma” from the opera “Turandot,” too?

“There’s a really great story about Aretha most people don’t know,” Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic executive director Nancy Sanderson said earlier this week as she looked forward to hearing the PNC Pops perform “Respect: A Tribute to Aretha Franklin” at 8 p.m. Feb. 14 at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre.

“In 1998 she was appearing in a Grammy Award presentation and her friend Luciano Pavarotti was supposed to sing ‘Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s ‘Turandot.’ Pavarotti’s physician told him he was in no condition to sing, it would really hurt his voice if he tried. With 20 minutes to go, Aretha stepped up to the plate and said, ‘I’ll sing it.’

“The orchestra didn’t know what to expect. The audience didn’t know what to expect. Here she was, the Queen of Gospel and Soul, and she was open-minded about opera. She put her own stamp on it. It was just Aretha and this beautiful piece. It was just so beautiful.”

On Friday the Philharmonic’s local audience will hear Broadway vocalists Tamika Lawrence, Melvin Tunstall III and Jessica Hendy paying tribute to Franklin and her music — from “Respect” to “Nessun Dorma” to several surprises — as the PNC Pops orchestra plays under the baton of Melisse Brunet, who just this week signed a contract to become the Philharmonic conductor, after serving as interim conductor since 2018.

“Our musicians love to play under her,” Sanderson said. “She’s just so gifted. She just has a signature. She really makes the orchestra sound great, and there’s a respect and a very positive vibe in rehearsals.”

“We’ve had a really favorable response from patrons in the community about Melisse. She’s really creating a buzz,” Sanderson continued. “The board is really behind this decision. For about six months the board has been in conversation, and realized we know more about Melisse than we would ever know about someone who came in and conducts one time. It would be foolish to conduct a search when we had the ideal person right here.”

Brunet well-regarded in the international music community, Sanderson said, so much so that she is one of 12 women conductors selected to be part of a competition called La Maestra, which is set for next month in Paris. The women conductors hail from France, Italy, Venezuela, Bulgaria, South Korea, Indonesia, the United States and several other countries.

About the concert’s vocalists:

Tamika Lawrence has performed as a vocalist in “The Wiz Live! on NBC,” “Book of Morman” and “Come From Away” and has begun to write her own music. She has won two Grammy Awards, one for her work on the “Dear Evan Hansen” cast album and one for the soundtrack to “The Greatest Showman.”

Melvin Tunstall III made his Broadway debut in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at the Sondheim Theatre and has appeared in more than 1,500 performances of the show. Earlier, he appeared in the European Tour of the Tony Award-winning musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

Jessica Hendy played Grizabella in “Cats” in both the original Broadway run and the 2016 revival. In New York she received rave reviews for her one-woman cabaret “A Life To Call Your Own.” Her symphonic concert work includes performances with Cincinnati Pops, Modesto Symphony, Long Beach Symphony, Fort Worth Symphony, Grand Rapids Symphony and the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra.