OLD FRONTENAC, MINN. — The tangled deciduous woods that surround the southeastern Minnesota village of Old Frontenac are flush with sound. Especially at dawn and dusk, they echo with birdsong. Wind whooshes through live trees and rattles dead ones. At night, coyotes trade lonesome calls with faraway trains.
Of late, a new sound, melodic, often melancholy, has floated through the woods.
Virginia Oliver, 73, of New Frontenac, heard it as she watered flowers in the Old Frontenac cemetery. “I couldn’t quite make out what it was,” she said. “I thought it must be a horn, but I didn’t know right away where it was coming from. It was a concert for one — for me.”
Sonda Featherstone, 63, of Florence Township, was riding her bike east on Goodhue County Road 2 when “I heard a sound far off coming closer and closer. It was a trumpeter swan descending right at me.” For a moment, she said, she thought it would land on her.
“I also heard another unusual sound,” she said. “I came around the bend and there was a man playing a French horn. I believe the trumpeter swan heard it too and possibly thought it was me on my bike.”
The source of the beguiling sounds was Kestrel Wright, 38, of Red Wing. Several days a week, he drives south to the rest stop off Hwy. 61 and County Road 2, an entry point to Old Frontenac and to two Frontenac State Park hiking trails. Sitting atop a picnic table, he runs through strength and breathing exercises and arpeggios, then practices for upcoming gigs and for his now largely-in-hiatus roles with the Fort Snelling Army Band and the La Crosse (Wis.) Symphony Orchestra.
Why is this man with a falcon’s name — Kestrel is Old English for “a piercing cry” — playing Mozart, Bach, Haydn and Strauss in the woods?
“I’m just practicing,” Wright said. “I’m not busking, or looking for an audience. I need to stay in shape musically, and here I can practice without bothering anybody. I hope I’m considerate, and that I’m not changing the way this place is used.”
Amid frequent pauses, his horn’s gently trembling notes echo the sounds of nature, and inspire callbacks from wrens, bluebirds, goldfinches and the occasional lovesick swan.
The outpouring of appreciative listeners is not what Wright had expected. He’s aware that public practice irritates some, and leaves his small apartment to practice so as not to bother his neighbors. During one practice at the Red Wing skatepark, he was greeted by a sheriff’s deputy who told him that a nearby resident had created a social media post with a dartboard featuring — him. At the Frontenac rest stop, he’s had deputies stop to make sure he’s not up to anything nefarious.
“I don’t mind,” said Wright, a courteous, soft-spoken man. “They’re doing the right thing.”
He attributes his unintended influence partly to his practice site — a historical marker for Fort Beauharnois, a 1700s-era battlement long lost in the shifting sands of Wells Creek, which splays into the nearby Mississippi River.
Perhaps it is ghosts or forest acoustics that give his sounds their magic. Or perhaps, he says, it is the peculiar sounds of the Dufrasne horn exercises he moves through, with their birdsong-like high notes, and octatonic scales, with their haunting half-steps.
Wright describes himself as “a drifter,” but his path will be familiar to any musician or artist struggling in a tough economy. He was born on a homestead near Viroqua, Wis., his unusual name unnotable in a family that included siblings Simeon and Evangeline. His family moved to Dubuque, Iowa, where he graduated from high school in 2000.
As a high school junior, he discovered his passion for the French horn while dating a pretty trumpet player whose watchful father gave him French horn lessons. After two years at the University of Iowa, Wright earned a degree in music from the University of Washington in Seattle in 2006, then stayed in Seattle for several years, occasionally busking in the city’s bus station, an acoustical palace. He played with the Tacoma, Mid-Columbia and Walla Walla symphonies, guided by his mentor Christopher Leuba, a French horn player of wide renown who died in 2019.
He also traveled widely, including to Alaska, where he worked at a salmon-canning factory, and Chile, where he missed an audition with the Santiago Symphony Orchestra after a serious car crash.
Always, he had his French horn at his side.
In 2016, Wright enlisted in the Army, eventually attending Virginia’s Army School of Music. In 2018, he moved to Red Wing to study at Minnesota State College Southeast’s Red Wing campus, which has a highly regarded instrument repair program.
The lush hair and beard pictured on his pre-Army CD “Balancing Act,” made with cellist Michelle Cameron, has been replaced by a buzz cut. He puts together a modest living as a repairer of brass instruments, a school bus driver, and with his band and symphony gigs — jobs now at the mercy of COVID-19 precautions.
Just now, his fan base is Old Frontenac and environs. He recently participated in a solemn outdoors performance of James Naigus’ “Lionheart’s Call,” a tribute to health care workers, at Mayo Clinic Health System Red Wing.
On Sunday (July 19), he and fellow musicians Jason Bystrom, Laura Maxwell and Rob Schmidtke, who make up the Red Wing Horn Quartet, will perform at 9 a.m. at Red Wing’s Central Park Bandshell as part of United Lutheran Church’s service in the park.
Oliver, who followed the haunting sounds from her cemetery duties to Wright’s rest stop practice site, subsequently invited him to visit the Florence Township hall in New Frontenac, where she pointed out photos of a brass band that played there back in the early 1900s, and invited him to help re-create that on the town’s annual history day when it can finally be safely held.
“It is only appropriate he should be there,” Oliver said. “He is echoing our history, and now he belongs with us.”
Wright is honored by such invitations. “I am lucky to have a place to play that’s so welcoming,” he said, adding with characteristic understatement, “I’m happy that people don’t mind what I do here.”