A dying wish of the Wildwood Artist Series (WAS) founder was to include a children’s concert as part of the organization’s repertoire. Two days before she died last April, Ellie Bruner learned her dream would come true.
Three years in the making, the Kenwood Symphony Orchestra will perform the iconic children’s tale “Peter and the Wolf” as part of the Wildwood series at the Chautauqua Fine Arts Center in Mahtomedi. It was the orchestra’s bassoonist, Ellen Maas, who delivered the happy news last spring to her good friend Bruner, who was in hospice care at her Grant home.
A longtime member of the Kenwood symphony, Maas met Bruner in 2007 when she joined the St. Paul Garden Club. Bruner was president, one of many leadership roles the active volunteer held in groups involving gardening and music.
“Ellie was such an inspiring person,” said Maas, who lives in Birchwood. “She founded WAS more than 30 years ago and oversaw its development into an impressive concert series featuring everything from jazz, blues, classical, country and choral. She was a classically trained opera singer and led the Ravinia children’s summer music program in Chicago before moving to Minnesota in the ’50s. It was always her dream to include a children’s concert.”
It was Bruner who chose “Peter and the Wolf,” shared Maas, adding, “There is no better piece to introduce children to orchestra.”
Through the two women’s collaboration, a contract was signed and ready to bring the performance to Chautauqua when the pandemic hit. WAS shut down for two years. The third year, schedules did not align, recalled Maas. “Then last year, we locked in on a possible date. Unfortunately, Ellie was diagnosed with an aggressive and incurable liver cancer. We continued to work on things while she was in hospice and she introduced me to her successor, Julie Molitor. The two of us fast-tracked a contract through.”
When the schedule was finalized, Maas drove to Bruner’s house to share the news the terminally ill woman had been waiting four years to hear. “I held her hand and told her the concert was set to go. She opened her eyes and whispered, ‘thank you, thank you,’ smiled, and went back to sleep.”
Two days later, Bruner passed away. She was 83.
The concert will be dedicated to the WAS founder for her dedication to the nonprofit organization, which started as a committee of the Mahtomedi Area Educational Foundation (MAEF). Its mission then and now: to provide diverse, family-friendly events, encourage an appreciation of the fine arts, and support music education and artist residency experiences in Mahtomedi public schools.
“Peter and the Wolf” has been taught as part of the Wildwood Elementary school music curriculum for years, Molitor said. “The kids study the music and themes of Peter and the wolf in conjunction with learning about instruments of the orchestra. This is the first time students will be seeing it live, and is another great example where Ellie was working behind the scenes to bring new and quality performances to our community. I’m sure that Ellie believed this would be a fantastic opportunity to encourage families to enjoy the live show together.
“I tell my kids that the sciences help make life easier, but the arts make life more joyful.”
Molitor, who lives in Birchwood, was tapped by MAEF Executive Director Suzanne Anderson to be the next WAS president when she learned Bruner was thinking about retiring in 2022.
“Suzanne knew my youngest child was graduating and that I was a performing arts supporter,” Molitor said. “At first, I was hesitant, since I don’t have experience in putting on music productions, but with some nudging and then joining the committee as recording secretary, I saw there is a dedicated group of volunteers, including music faculty members, a graphic designer, a website administrator and other community members, willing to do the heavy lifting required to keep Ellie’s vision going. We are also strongly supported by MAEF.
“What separates Wildwood Artist Series from other performance offerings in the area is that we partner with and financially support music programs and additional music experiences at our schools, including the program named in Ellie’s honor, the Ellen C. Bruner Professional Performing Artist Residency Program,” continued Molitor. “This is a very important part of what WAS is all about.”
Bruner’s successor said she’s grateful to play a part in continuing the founder’s vision for the future.
“Ellie was a blessing to our community in so many ways,” Molitor said. “The Jan. 27 concert is really the last one that Ellie envisioned and made happen, so it’s great that her son, Rick Bruner, will be there to perform a couple of songs in her honor.”
Rick, a musician who lives in Los Angeles, is an ’86 graduate of Mahtomedi High School and one of Ellie and Phil Bruner’s three children.
“I think Ellie would be very pleased that so far this season we have reached over 400 students at concerts and school events, with two more concerts, plus a resident artist who will be at the high school this year,” Molitor said. “Over the past 30 years, there have been over 42,000 joyful experiences (of all ages) that wouldn’t have happened without Ellie’s leadership.”