Timothy Mahr ’78 retires on a high note, St. Olaf Band performs in Orchestra Hall

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Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall’s iconic cube backdrop’s blue lighting was replaced with St. Olaf gold on Friday, May 5 as the St. Olaf Band took the stage in celebration of the retirement of Dr. Timothy Mahr ’78.

 

The program consisted of 10 pieces, including the premiere performances of “Ride the Wind” by Ole alum Jonathan Bartz ’08 and “Thoughts and Prayers” by Adam Pazandak ’23. Pazandak’s piece was composed as part of a Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) project under Dr. Mahr’s direction. The program also included Dr. Mahr’s 2019 composition “A Plaintive Cry, A Hopeful Dream.” Dr. Mahr also kept the St. Olaf Band tradition of including a choral piece in the program with his transcription of Quirino Gasparini’s “Adoramus Te, Christie.”

 

The finale — David Maslanka’s “Symphony No. 8” — garnered a five minute standing ovation from the crowd. Dr. Mahr left the stage and returned to receive the crowd multiple times, before signaling to the band to play their encore performance of Warren Barker’s arrangement of “Strike Up the Band” by George Gershwin. The piece was performed with no conductor, and instead, the band played the quirky, upbeat tune in synchronization with each other. Throughout the piece, instrumental sections are highlighted. The trumpets do fingerings for each other. Instead of blowing bubbles during the piece, like they did on their California tour this past February, giant bubble graphics were projected onto the backdrop. The lively tune was met with a standing ovation.

 

After the concert’s conclusion, audience members returned to the lobby for refreshments and community. Glasses of champagne and Martinelli’s were handed out, and there was a wide selection of baked goods. Conversations flowed throughout the atrium as viewers enjoyed their company and stopped to take photos with the life-size cutout of Dr. Mahr.

 

French horn player and Assistant Manager of the St. Olaf Band Jack Kiehne ’24 found the whole experience “exhilarating.” He had played in Orchestra Hall before, but never with a band. Orchestra Hall historically books orchestras, and Friday night shows are highly sought after.

 

With no concert hall on St. Olaf’s campus, the St. Olaf Band often plays in Skoglund’s auditorium or Boe Chapel — spaces that are not specifically designed for the ensemble’s sound. During the concert, Dr. Mahr told the crowd that the venue showed really how the band sounds.

 

St. Olaf Band Manager Luke Springer ’23 also noted the high energy. “That’s easily the most fun and meaningful concert I’ve ever played in and the best crowd I’ve ever played in front of,” Springer said. “I don’t know where I would ever get better than that, it was just a high point of my life. […] There was just so much love in the room.”

 

People had flown in from across the country and across the world to see the performance. One former member is flying in from Norway. “I think it just puts it into perspective how much Dr. Mahr’s influenced everything in the band world around here,” Kiehne said. “All that crowd was for the band, but also for Dr. Mahr. It was really sweet to see all that for him and for us.”

 

Megan Holroyd ’96, one of Dr. Mahr’s first students when he joined St. Olaf’s faculty, agreed. “I think people can’t always make that commitment to come back, unless it’s something really special,” Holroyd said. 

 

During one transition between the songs, Dr. Mahr asked for all the bandies, as current and former band members are often affectionately called, to stand up in the audience. The crowd represented a wide variety of people with ages ranging from young twenties to those older than Dr. Mahr himself. Whistling has become a tradition in the band — members will whistle for positive affirmation, celebrating a solo, or agreeing with Dr. Mahr. That distinct whistle was loudly present in Orchestra Hall.

 

Dr. Mahr reiterated the innumerous support he has received from family, friends, mentors, and colleagues. He had a piece of paper covered in names that was folded up and kept in his jacket’s pocket near his heart for the duration of the show.  “Thank you all for making my dreams come true,” Dr. Mahr said right before the program’s finale.

 

As his days as St. Olaf Band Director comes to a close, Dr. Mahr reflected on how thankful he is for the support and recognition he has received. “There’s all these other [professors] around here who have done stunning work, and they’ll have a symposium on campus or something like that, but they don’t get Orchestra Hall with 1300 people,” Dr. Mahr said. “These students are able to really give amazing efforts because of who they are, and that depends on everybody on the Hill.”

 

Dr. Mahr’s emphasis on community was present in the performance hall that Friday evening. Emotions ran high — gratefulness for Dr. Mahr’s mentorship, love, and support — as the audience marveled in the spectacular that was the opportunity St. Olaf Band had to perform in Orchestra Hall. 

 

Dr. Mahr’s Leadership

Dr. Mahr graduated from St. Olaf in 1978. During his time on the Hill, he was in Norseman Band for a year before joining St. Olaf Band under the direction of Miles “Mity” Johnson.

 

Johnson served in the position for 37 years before his retirement. There have been less St. Olaf Band Directors than there have been College Presidents. Johnson was a mentor to Dr. Mahr, and he wanted to preserve the program that Johnson helped build.

 

In addition to directing the St. Olaf Band, Dr. Mahr teaches composition and conducting classes. Holroyd, who is now a music educator herself, views Dr. Mahr as a mentor. 

 

“His personal connections with students, his deep, deep knowledge of the musical score and technical abilities, and his way of nurturing even the non-music majors that were in there, nurturing us as humans, as people, not only as musicians,” Holroyd said. “There was always integrity. I think of him as a leader with integrity.”

 

Holroyd sees Dr. Mahr’s impact on her teaching everyday. Specifically, his position as a composer allowed him to get to the grittiness of details in rehearsal, pushing Holroyd to approach performing and conducting in different ways than before.

 

“He was really committed to putting his own talents into the position and I really enjoyed hearing all of his perspectives as a composer and playing his pieces,” Holroyd said. “He just brought more detail into it.”

 

That attention to detail is still apparent in Dr. Mahr’s teaching today. Springer explained that Dr. Mahr’s philosophy is that learning the music is the bare minimum. Instead, performances really flourish “when you’re putting your emotions into it, putting your life experiences into, making it something greater than just putting notes on the page,” Springer said. “I think we get there with every piece we play because of [Dr. Mahr].” 

 

Dr. Mahr recognizes that the performance and emotion behind the piece is what really tells the story. Pazandak’s “Thoughts and Prayers” was written specifically about gun violence and how desensitized society has become to these horrific events. Dr. Mahr recounted a particularly difficult rehearsal was after the St. Olaf community became aware of the apprehension of a threat on campus. Dr. Mahr took this as an opportunity to call the band to action.

 

“It’s not just notes and rhythms, we have to get that right, but what are we saying, why are we saying it,” Dr. Mahr said. “I wish we had more time to talk about these things.”

 

The Future of the St. Olaf Band

While the Orchestra Hall performance was a celebration of Dr. Mahr’s career, it will not be his last time conducting the St. Olaf Band. The ensemble will perform at commencement, before heading on their two week international tour in Japan.

 

The tour has come at no cost to ensemble members, due to an endowment fund created by alum. The College received the $4.2 million gift in 2019, and was created specifically for members of the ambassador ensembles — St. Olaf Band, St. Olaf Orchestra, and St. Olaf Choir — to have fully funded tours. 

 

Kiehne and Springer described their gratitude for the endowment and how they look forward to spending time with Dr. Mahr during his last tour.

 

These final moments at the College for Dr. Mahr has caused a range of thoughts and feelings. Many people have marked this transition as the end of an era, a marker in the history of the music program. “It’s very strange to be at a point in your life where you think there’s a legacy, it’s full of emotions,” Dr. Mahr said.

 

As for retirement, Dr. Mahr is looking forward to taking a break and focusing on composition. He currently has five commissioned pieces in progress. In addition to composition, Dr. Mahr hopes that in retirement he will increase his freedom to travel, write a children’s book series about band, and volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.

 

Music will always be a large part of Dr. Mahr’s life, and he will continue to be involved in the arts past his retirement. “The last thing I want to do is give up the band,” Dr. Mahr said. “I would do that until I die. That’s heaven right there on earth.”

 

Dr. Henry Dorn will assume the role of St. Olaf Band Director this upcoming fall. Dr. Mahr is excited to see what Dorn will do with the program, and he is continually impressed with Dorn’s accomplishments. Dr. Mahr also hopes that when St. Olaf constructs a concert hall, Dorn will invite him to guest conduct a piece, even if it means he will have to use a walker to get to the podium.

franci3@stolaf.edu

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