It's really too bad that the Band doesn't play the Fest. As Sunday's service demonstrated again, the Band is simply excellent, one of the top musical organizations on campus that deserves to be heard by everyone, not simply the Norwegian sweater-dotted crowd of alumni, friends and students who filled Boe Chapel.
Among the returnees to the chapel were the international flags and the chapel's organ. Although only about one-eighth of the approximately 4,000 organ pipes were played on Sunday, the service featured the first time the St. Olaf community has officially heard the new organ, and the results couldn't be more promising.
The Band began with a prelude, "Variants on an Ancient Air" by James Curnow, which played with "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel" in a variety of orchestrations, tempos and moods. The chapel's vastly improved acoustics showcased the Band's strengths in this and every piece they played, particularly their control, balance (especially between the percussion and the rest of the ensemble) and sheer verve.
Conductor Timothy Mahr's other programming choices were similarly well-selected. To accompany the processional "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel," he took a page out of the Christmas Festival's book and placed band players in the balcony as well as in the apse, enabling the song to take a call-and-response format. He also composed snatches of thematic music, one theme portraying winter, the other summer, to accompany Pastor Benson's sermon. The winter music was extraordinarily effective at evoking the cold wind blowing across the Minnesota plains. While Benson and Mahr disagreed as to whether the summer music was a sparkling blue lake or green fields (it sounded like green fields to me), it certainly contained the essence of summer.
The band's performance of "He Came Down" also proved that, besides being an outstanding band, the ensemble can sing prettily, too. Their "First Noel," arranged by Jeff Simmons, sounded almost baroque, and their postlude "Patapan" was a stellar rendition of a less unusual arrangement. Although performing the same song that the St. Olaf Orchestra played so well in this year's Christmas Festival could have been a dangerous idea, the band handled Shelley Hanson's more percussive arrangement with beautiful balance and tone.
The organ is still much less polished than the Band, but what I heard on Sunday promises a very bright instrumental future. In "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel" and "Of the Father's Love Begotten," John Ferguson and the organ demonstrated a surprising ability to sound delicate but not wispy, a beautiful blend of sounds on the high harmonies and an overall rich but not treacly tone that is a vast improvement over the previous organ. I look forward to hearing the other 3,500 pipes in February, when the organ will surely demonstrate its worthiness to join St. Olaf's musical family.