The concert opened with "Celebration," a bright and multifaceted overture by contemporary British composer Philip Sparke. Composed in 1992 for the Tokyo Kosei Wind Ensemble, the work contrasted lyrical woodwind solos and Aaron Copland-esque fanfare material with an unpredictable, fast-paced middle section.
The second work on the program was "the boat that brings them home" by Hagen, receiving its premiere at the concert. Commissioned in honor of the Music Department's centennial anniversary, "the boat that brings them home" musically depicted a painting of the same title by artist Dan Musgrave.
Like "Celebration," Hagen's emotionally rich work alternated passages of full ensemble power with stirring chamber moments, but with a subtly darker undertone. At first full of bold, brassy confidence, the piece's arching themes evolved in unusual instrumental combinations.
An aggressive snare drum motif surfaced ominously throughout the piece, which explored a variety of moods and tempos before finally fading into a quiet, unsettled coda that suggested the ambiguous toll of triumph.
"I struggled with how to appropriately bring the music to a close, then settled on the only way I felt fitting," Hagen said. "I have friends who have been sent somewhere overseas to defend our country and for what it stands. The boat that brings them home has not come home yet."
Mahr predicted a healthy future for Hagen's nine-minute work. "This was a birth; you heard it here," he said.
Next, the band moved to American composer Howard Hanson's 1954 work "Chorale and Alleluia." The piece was once described by conductor Frederick Fennell as "the most awaited piece of music to be written for the wind band in my 20 years as a conductor in this field."
The composition's elegiac brass chorale opening, continuing the concert's Americana theme, accelerated throughout the middle section before slowing to a triumphant close.
After a brief pause, a reduced ensemble accompanied soloist Sarah DeMoss '04 in a movement from the "Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble" by contemporary American composer David Maslanka, a St. Olaf Band mainstay in recent years.
The concerto's first movement, subtitled "Fire in the Earth," stems from three poetic images that occurred to Maslanka during an autumn hike through a field in Montana during the late 1990s.
DeMoss confronted the movement's whimsical juxtaposition of modern minimalist techniques and Baroque musical elements with professional charm, giving the impulsive saxophone lines an air of controlled simplicity.
"You can hear such a strong connection to where [Maslanka] is from in the beautiful, soaring melodies of his music," DeMoss said after the concert.
The concert concluded with "Three Places in the West," a set of challenging ensemble works by Dan Welcher, who, like Maslanka, was musically inspired by Western American geology.
The three pieces, "The Yellowstone Fires," "Arches" and "Zion," are rarely performed together, but after the St. Olaf Band performed "Zion" during its recent Mexico tour, Mahr noticed an especially enthusiastic audience response.
United by a sense of endless innovation in timbral color, the three Welcher works pushed the percussion section to its limits while giving the other sections of the band moments to shine as well.