The day was Nov. 12, a Saturday afternoon. Skoglund Center was set up to accommodate a concert band. Soon, the St. Olaf Festival of Bands would begin, including performances from the St. Olaf Band, the Festival Band, featuring 132 high school students from band programs all over Minnesota, and the Norseman Band.
Parents filled the bleachers, along with a few Oles. Then at 3:55 p.m., the high schoolers flooded into the gym as their families called their names and snapped photos. Some looked away in embarrassment, while others eagerly waved back. Finally, the St. Olaf students emerged. St. Olaf Band sat in the bleachers, and Norseman took their places and began the cacophony of warm-ups.
Festival of Bands is an annual tradition at St. Olaf. It begins in September, when high school band directors are invited to nominate up to five of their top students. From the over 400 nominations, an ensemble is selected to practice in an all-day rehearsal with a guest conductor, eat lunch in Stav Hall and perform in a concert that evening. This year, the conductor was Director of Bands and Professor of Music at Drake University in Des Moines Robert Meunier. He founded the Drake University Wind Symphony in 1998 and has played percussion with the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra for 28 years. In addition to conducting the Festival Band, Dr. Meunier also worked with the St. Olaf Band and Norseman Band.
Joseph Spellman ’19 plays bassoon with the Norseman Band. He thought Meunier was an outstanding choice for this year’s Festival.
“He is a fantastic conductor, and he brought a really great energy to the band room. We were playing a very complex piece that challenged our abilities, and his insights into the piece were really valuable for our performance,” Spellman said.
The concert began promptly at 4 p.m. when director of both the St. Olaf Band and the Norseman Band Timothy Mahr took the podium to conduct the latter, who opened with “An American Salute,” a vigorous arrangement of variations on the Civil War standard “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” featuring generally unheard-of combinations of instruments, most notably a bassoon trio. Dr. Meunier then conducted “Pale Blue on Deep,” a song about the north shore of Lake Superior that the director described as “pensive in many ways, and always in some kind of motion.” Norseman then wrapped up their set with two faster numbers, “Nitro” and “Bayou Breakdown,” both of which proved to be rhythmically complex and quick-moving pieces.
The high schoolers then took the stage, with a quick introduction by Meunier.
“This is such a unique thing that we do in music,” he said. “How often do math clubs get together for one day and then put on a concert, or biology clubs? This is so unique to music and such a special thing.”
After emphasizing that most of the students did not know each other before arriving at St. Olaf that morning, the Festival Band delved into their music. Their performance of the five selected pieces was indeed remarkable, considering the fact that they had only rehearsed as a band for a day. The audience was treated to the pulsing power of “Windsprints,” a Celtic tune called “Soles Ane” (Gaelic for “Yesterday’s Love”), a Russian “Galop” from “Moscow, Cheryomushki” and Mahr’s newest composition, “Appalachian Folk Dreams,” a pleasant song mostly in 5/4.
The most emotionally powerful piece, however, was “Kindred Spirits.” As Meunier explained, the piece was commissioned by a middle school band after a high school student murdered his parents and two younger brothers who played in the band. It included key percussion features: four chime hits to represent each life lost, and a bass drum to symbolize a fading heartbeat. The piece was the most emotional of the repertoire, and the hushed audience seemed to take a while to process the music.
Finally, the St. Olaf Band concluded the concert. They also played four pieces: “Toccata Marziale,” “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” from the opera “Lohengrin,” “Blow, Eastern Winds” (directed by Meunier again) and “Oboe Concerto” by Jennifer Higdon. The latter featured St. Olaf oboe studio and woodwind methods instructor Dana Maede. The entire set was very precise, clean and well-received by the audience.
Fiona Carson ’18, a trombonist in the St. Olaf Band, agreed that their set went well.
“My favorite piece that we played was ‘Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral’ by Wagner. It starts out so tender with a couple of woodwinds playing and I love how the flute floats above the rest of the instruments. However as the piece goes on, it grows and by the end it is magnificently big and you can just hear the joy and triumph in the music.”
Mahr closed the show and sent everyone off for dinner with some final thoughts, related to this week’s election.
“It’s been a very challenging week full of concern for the future and the uncertainty of where we’re at right now, and what we find in the arts is that it pays to let your soul be nurtured by an artistic experience. And what I’m hoping that you see is that we have with the high school group and with both these bands people from both sides of the political aisle, and yet they can come together and make music. It’s that artistic experience that I think holds hope for us.”
The Festival of Bands on Saturday may have been a pleasant way to spend an afternoon and watch skilled musicians and conductors do what they do best, but it truly was an artistic experience, as Mahr said. To catch Norseman Band’s next performance, attend their joint concert with Philharmonia on Nov. 20 at 7:30 p.m. in Boe Chapel. The St. Olaf Band’s next official concert will be their Winter Tour Home Concert on Feb. 11, 3:30 p.m. in Skoglund Center.