A Minnesota brass band is trying to make a mark on British culture.
As it celebrates its 20th anniversary next month, the Lake Wobegon Brass Band has commissioned a piece, written in the British style, from over the pond.
Co-founder Gordon Nilsen (tuba) granted that the group could have had a fine musical composition written locally. But members of the group had met renowned composer Philip Wilby during one of two trips the band has made to England. They knew that any Wilby composition is likely to be played again and again by brass bands on the British competitive circuit, spreading the band's influence internationally. Wilby will be on hand for the Feb. 16 premier of "Beyond Far Horizons" at the Minnesota Music Educators Association conference in Minneapolis.
About the Lake Wobegon name: Nilsen said the group wanted a moniker with a strong regional identification. Though they had the blessing of Garrison Keillor and the folks at "A Prairie Home Companion," the band is not affiliated with the popular Minnesota Public Radio program or Keillor's fictitious hometown. The group did, however, play on the show's 35th anniversary live broadcast two years ago in Avon, Minn.
The band did have its birth in Keillor's real-life hometown of Anoka.
Nilsen was band director at what was then Fred Moore Middle School (now Anoka Middle School for the Arts). In 1989, he and Dave Peterson, band director at Northdale Middle School in Coon Rapids, pulled together a band for a one-time Fourth of July performance. Two years later, after attending the North American Brass Band Association's national convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the two joined with Anoka-Ramsey Community College music professor Rick Perkins to bring the band back together for keeps.
The ensemble could have gone in any direction. But the founders were fond of the British brass band tradition, which features instruments that are rare in American brass bands: flugelhorn, euphonium and cornets, for example. There were other reasons: Nilsen and others liked the flexibility of the genre; British brass bands play marches, hymns and overtures. Besides, there was nothing else like it around here.
"There were many other wind bands and community orchestras, but this was something different," Nilsen said.
During a recent Saturday morning practice, the brass tubas flashed under the stage lights in the Andover High School auditorium. Conductor Michael Halstenson (also music director at Anoka High School) ran the brass and percussion through bits and pieces of numbers the group will play during its winter series, which starts this month.
Normally, the group plays three series of concerts, in the fall, around the holidays and in the winter, preceded by several weeks of rehearsals at their usual rehearsal home, Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Coon Rapids. Next week, Wilby will guest-conduct as the group works to perfect his composition.
Unlike their British counterparts, the group does not compete.
"So many of us were music teachers," Nilsen said. "We spent so much time getting kids ready for competitions, and wanted this to be fun for us. That's the idea. We play for the fun of it."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409