Timothy Mahr conducted the Roseville Area High School band in a rehearsal of his Symphony No. 1. (photo provided by Matt Dehnel)
It’s not every day a full-fledged symphony gets its world premiere in the Twin Cities, much less by a group of high schoolers. But the young musicians of the Roseville Area High School Symphonic Band are getting first crack at Symphony No. 1 by St. Olaf professor Timothy Mahr in a concert Nov. 17.
“They are experiencing something that perhaps no other high school band in the entire nation is doing -- premiering a 30-minute, four-movement symphony,” said Mahr. “We're all birthing a new work. The conception, gestation and labor are almost done, and it’s time to launch it into the world.”
How did the kids get this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?
Roseville band director Matt Dehnel is a former student of Mahr, a prolific composer and conductor whose St. Olaf Band regularly performs symphonic works. The two were chatting one day when Dehnel asked: “Why haven’t you written a symphony yet?” “Not a bad idea,” replied his ex-prof.
The two hatched a plan: They would get a bunch of bands across the country to chip in to fund the piece.
“It's now relatively simple to broadcast the opportunity to get involved via email and other social media,” said Mahr. Within just a few weeks, Dehnel found 54 other groups – college, high school and community bands – to join with Roseville in a consortium so they could be part of the work.
They deliberately set the fee lower than normal so that more groups could participate, Mahr said. “So now, over the course of the next few years, my Symphony No. 1 will be premiered by all of these bands in about 15 different states. I'm a very lucky man.”
The composer (pictured at right) said he didn’t pull many punches while writing the piece.
“The consortium was interested in a work appropriate for advanced high school and college/university bands. While I didn't write the hardest music I could imagine, I didn't really compromise all that often either.”
For the young musicians, “it’s been a huge amount of work," Dehnel said, "but the students have embraced it, and even opened their souls to the subject matter,” which reflects the conflicted state of the world today.
The kids’ favorite, though, is the third movement, which provides a moment of joy and light amid the angsty dissonance of the piece. “Their faces lit up” when they first played it, said Dehnel.
Mahr, for his part, praised the young ensemble.
“I've had the pleasure of working with the RAHS Symphonic Band over the past few years as a guest conductor, so I knew going into this project that I was about to make music with one of the finest high school bands in the upper Midwest. … Their efforts have been wonderful and this rather challenging score is coming to life beautifully under Matt’s baton. I also knew what I was getting into with Matt. He was a very strong conductor while he was at St. Olaf, and I've enjoyed watching his career and talent unfold.”
The composer expects Thursday’s concert – which is free and open to the public -- to be one of the most memorable events of his life.
“I’ve written nearly 80 works for band,” he said. “I guess it just took until now, at the tender age of 60, to sense that I was capable of perhaps doing well with this task.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17
Where: Roseville Area High School, 1240 W. County Road B2.