Philip Brunelle was 25 and had just been hired as the organist at Plymouth Congregational Church in south Minneapolis when an older member of the congregation asked about "that stuff" he had played right before the last hymn.

He explained that he had thrown in a little improvisation to set the mood for the hymn. "I described what it is and why I did it," he said. "And then I hit her with what I considered my best argument: that it's a tradition that goes back to Johann Sebastian Bach.

"She looked at me and said sternly, 'Bach wasn't a member of Plymouth Church.'"

Things have gone more smoothly for Brunelle since then, so much so that this Sunday the church is marking his 40th anniversary with a daylong celebration that will start with the morning service and end with a dinner following a hymn-sing -- accompanied by Brunelle, of course.

Forty years is an unusually long tenure for a church organist. It's even more unusual for someone like Brunelle, 65, who has his musical irons in a number of high-profile fires.

He founded and still serves as artistic director of VocalEssence, and so far this year he has played major roles in the World Choral Symposium in Denmark and the American Guild of Organists convention in the Twin Cities.

He's had plenty of other offers, but he stays because he loves the job as much today as the first day he walked into the sanctuary.

"I was 15," he said. "I had signed up for organ lessons from Arthur Jennings, who was the organist at Plymouth at the time and was using the sanctuary for his lessons. The first time I walked in here, I said, 'Wouldn't it be something if someday I got to play the organ in a place like this!'"

Ten years later, Jennings retired and Brunelle replaced him.

His enthusiasm is infectious. Plymouth is a rarity among churches in that it has a waiting list of members wanting to get into the choir. "There's no more room in the choir loft," he explained.

Those once-controversial improvisations have become a tradition. Another is that he often quits playing in the middle of a hymn, leaving the congregation to sing a cappella.

"I just love to listen to the people sing," he said. "My motto is that when you talk, you can use your inside voice. But when you sing, you should always use your outside voice."

And when the service ends, there's yet one more tradition: People gather around the organ as he plays the postlude, creating the look of a piano bar.

"Sometimes they just want to watch me play, and sometimes they're waiting to ask me a question about the music in the service," he said. "Either way, I think it's great. I love making those connections."

How much longer until he retires? He answers quickly: 65. He's not talking about his age. He's talking about a tenure of 65 years.

"I've been thinking that 25 more years would be about right," he said. "I'll quit when I'm 90."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392