Friday, September 23, 2011

A Big Welcome to Little G. Oliver

I have wonderful news to share!  My cousin Brent Riggs and his wife Nicole are the parents of a new baby boy, Griffin Oliver Riggs.  He was born this afternoon, and mom and baby appear to be doing quite well, judging from the photos Nicole posted online. 

Griffin Oliver Riggs – what a sweetie!
Brent and Nicole told the extended family in August that they planned to name their son after Brent’s (and my) great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.  The G. in that case stood for George, but G. Oliver didn’t like the name George, so he used the initial.

It’s too soon to know what Griffin Oliver will think of his name, but there’s no doubt he will know that he’s loved.  Congratulations to his parents and to big brothers Cody and Paul!


I don’t have any baby photos of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver – I wish I did.  But I do have a photo of him with my grandfather, Ronald Graham Riggs, as a baby.
G. Oliver and Ronald, 1901.
My grandfather weighed 8 pounds when he was born – the same as Griffin Oliver!  According to his parents’ notes, Ronald sang his first tune at about age 15 months, “Hiawatha,” and walked at 16 months.  No note was made about when he played his first instrument.  At some point, he chose the clarinet.
Ronald Riggs, young clarinetist
Here’s a photo I love because it represents four generations.  The woman in the middle is Islea Graham Riggs, my great-grandmother and G. Oliver’s wife; she’s holding baby Ronald.  The other woman is Islea’s mom, Flora Bassett Graham, and the distinguished gentleman is Flora’s father, Isaac Newton Bassett, a prominent lawyer in Aledo, Ill., who lived to be 95.
Grandmother Flora, Baby Ron, Mom Islea and Great-Grandfather Isaac Newton
Here’s another photo of young Ronald, who was born 110 years ago.  I plan to write more about his musical life next month.  Stay tuned!
Ronald Graham Riggs, born Oct. 23, 1901 in Crookston, Minn.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Little Women and Singing Stormtroopers

I can’t pass up the opportunity to report on two highlights of the month (so far) for members of My Musical Family.

Event No. 1: Sebastian sings with Stormtroopers.

Seb already was excited to attend Tuesday evening’s Twins game at Target Field because it combined three activities he enjoys: watching baseball, singing with a choir, and eating nachos.  But when we discovered it was Star Wars night at the stadium, the excitement level skyrocketed.  
Sebastian is in the back row, far left, standing next to Darth Maul.
The boys from his Northfield Youth Choirs group, the Troubadours, led the crowd in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch.  They were joined by some characters from a galaxy far, far away (including Karen Madsen, who – when she’s not portraying a Jedi or teaching a Northfield community ed class on lightsaber dueling – operates String Solutions, the place where we bought Seb’s viola).

“This is best game I’ve ever attended,” Seb said to me toward the end of the game.

Too bad the Twins couldn’t say the same; they ended up losing 4-5 to the Mariners.  I think their midi-chlorian levels were off that night.  But the choir members had more than enough enthusiasm to share.  You can see and hear the choir toward the end of this video: MinnPost - 'Star Wars Night' at Target Field by Twinsblog

Event No. 2:  Louisa is offered a part in Little Women the Musical.

Louisa decided not to audition for the high school’s fall musical, West Side Story, because she really hoped she’d be cast in the Northfield Arts Guild’s fall production of Little Women the Musical.  The gamble paid off; she found out yesterday that she will play the part of Meg, the oldest of the March sisters.

We’ve been listening to the 2005 Broadway cast recording of the show for months now, but I already was familiar with the story because Louisa May Alcott was my favorite author when I was a kid.  I read and reread Little Women, and the rest of Alcott’s books, many times.  She was the inspiration for naming our daughter Louisa; it was only later that we discovered there was a Louisa in my family tree (my great-grandfather G. Oliver’s maternal grandmother was named Louisa).

My favorite of the March sisters was always Jo, the writer.  Go figure.

The show will run the first three weekends in November.  You can find ticket information here.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Jump! A Composer Discusses Her Craft

Minnesota Public Radio aired a wonderful interview yesterday with Twin Cities composer Elizabeth Alexander.  It’s worth a listen, and not just because the broadcast includes a performance of a song called “Jump!” that’s sung by my daughter’s choir and features my husband as narrator (although that alone is reason enough, for me).
Composer Elizabeth Alexander (photo by Ann Marsden)
Alexander recently received a McKnight Foundation Composition Fellowship Grant.  Her name and face might be familiar to anyone who attended the Northfield Arts Guild’s 50th anniversary Beaux Arts Ball in December 2009, because Louisa’s Northfield Youth Choirs group gave the premier performance of “Jump!” at the ball (held at Carleton College’s Great Hall).  The choir also performed it later that spring.

Classical MPR host Steve Staruch conducted the interview (click here for the link) with Alexander, who talks in the first two minutes about how she began composing as a girl because it helped her make sense of the world.  She then discusses a piece she wrote for viola and piano called “Impermanent Things,” which plays at 3 1/2 minutes into the interview.  Ten and a half minutes into the interview, she discusses writing “Jump!” for the Northfield Youth Choirs group to sing at the NAG’s anniversary event.

Her mission was to create a work about renewing and remembering, so she came up with the idea of writing about taking a risk, of doing what had before seemed unthinkable.  As she explains, she used a quote attributed to author Ray Bradbury: “Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off.  Build your wings on the way down.”  This is the quote that you’ll hear Steve narrate in the piece, which begins at about 13 minutes into the interview.
Steve and me at the ball before the choir performance.
I’ve heard the piece performed live a few times, and it was inspiring to hear Alexander explain the process behind its creation.  Taking risks is important for growth, whether you’re a composer, a performer, a writer, or an artist of another type.  It’s nice to be reminded that those creative leaps of faith can be well worth the risk.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Pinch-Hitting for G. Oliver

I’ve been on a blogging sabbatical for the past week and a half while recovering from outpatient surgery.  I suppose I should have arranged for some guest bloggers to fill in for me, following the example of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, when he became ill in late 1936.  Of course, G. Oliver did not enlist guest bloggers to substitute for him – veteran band members and prominent band directors took up the baton and directed the St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band in his absence.

G. Oliver was hospitalized after Christmas 1936 with heart problems.  Instead of canceling the first week of post-holiday rehearsals, my grandfather, Ronald Riggs, and assistant band director Earl Bohm stepped in to coordinate practices for the three band groups: the beginners, the junior band, and the concert band.  My grandfather was directing the high school band in Thief River Falls, Minn., at the time, and Bohm was a boys’ band alumnus and a student at St. Cloud State University.

(A side note: Bohm later became a music teacher in the St. Louis Park school district, and both he and my grandfather were inducted into the Minnesota Music Educators Hall of Fame.) 

It was a busy schedule to juggle, and it’s not hard to see why the 66-year-old bandmaster might have worn himself out.  The band rehearsed on Tuesday evenings, the concert band rehearsed on Wednesday evenings, the beginners on cup mouth piece instruments and drums rehearsed on Saturday mornings, and the beginners on reed instruments rehearsed on Saturday afternoons.

When it became clear that G. Oliver would remain in the hospital for several weeks, a plan was devised to bring in weekly guest conductors to direct the concert band.  Bohm continued to rehearse the younger groups, with help from boys’ band veterans Bill Goblish, Tommy Pederson and Leonard Jung.
Gerald Prescott, director of University of Minnesota Bands, in about 1938.
The first guest conductor was Phil Thielman, one of the first boys to play with G. Oliver when he organized the St. Cloud Boys’ Band in 1923.  Thielman played piccolo, flute and clarinet, he had studied with symphony artists in Minneapolis, and he had several years of experience directing school bands, according to a Jan. 4, 1937 article in the St. Cloud Daily Times.

Thielman was followed by Francis Gonnella, director of the well-regarded band at the St. Cloud reformatory (a topic which deserves a blog entry of its own sometime).  I couldn’t find a photo of Gonnella online, but the Minnesota Historical Society has three photos of the band in its collection, including this one from about 1920.

A longtime acquaintance of G. Oliver’s, Minnesota Bandmasters Association President William Allen Abbott, made a trip from Minneapolis to direct the band in mid-January.  Abbott, a St. Cloud Daily Times article noted, “is the conductor of three outstanding bands in the Twin Cities: the Minneapolis Working Boys Band, organized 33 years ago under Professor Heinzman; the Minneapolis South high school band, which twice has won the national school band contest; and the Gopher American Legion band.”  Abbott also directed the University of Minnesota band from 1931-32.

The final guest conductor was Gerald R. Prescott, who was director of bands at the University of Minnesota from 1932-1943, 1946-1950, and 1951-1960, and who was the first full-time director of the university’s marching band.

A St. Cloud Daily Times article about Prescott from Jan. 25, 1937.
Before taking the university job, Prescott was director of the high school band in Mason City, Iowa, which advanced to the national high school band contest in 1931.  G. Oliver knew of Prescott and admired his work, which is why he and his St. Cloud boys’ band stopped in Mason City on the way back from a convention in Des Moines that same year to serenade Prescott and his band (I mentioned this in an April 2010 blog post, Save the Northfield Depot!).

A few fun facts about Prescott: he became a good friend of my grandfather’s; he was elected as a member of the prestigious American Bandmasters Association in 1936, the year before he filled in for G. Oliver; and he was a friend of Iowa composer and band director (and ABA member) Karl King, who wrote the college march “Mighty Minnesota” in 1939 and dedicated it to Prescott.

As a way of thanking his substitutes, G. Oliver organized a St. Cloud Municipal Band concert in April 1937 spring at the Paramount Theatre and dedicated the first song, Henry Fillmore’s “Gifted Leadership,” to Abbott, Gonnella, Prescott, Riggs (Ronald) and Thielman.

The concert also featured a trio for cornets, Walter M. Smith's “Bolero,” played by Howard Pramann, William Goblish and Robert Kollman; the overture “Mignon” from the Opera Comique Mignon by Charles Louis Ambroise Thomas; and it concluded with John Philip Sousa’s march, “Semper Fidelis,” featuring the St. Cloud Cathedral Girls Drum Corps.
A program from the April 11, 1937 concert at the Paramount Theatre.
The band played two concerts that day, at 3 p.m. and 9 p.m.  G. Oliver was back!

And so am I.