A Reverberating Force
Anyone who has been part of the St. Olaf Band knows the power of hitting the final chord of a piece with the intense focus of 90 musicians behind it. It’s not just a note, it’s a reverberating force. It’s an invitation from Conductor Timothy Mahr ’78 to pause and enjoy the moment together.
Those moments still resonate with students near and far. “Dr. Mahr has a very clear vision and still is able to intuit when to leave time and space in the air. Only a person with remarkable musicianship and humanity is able to create those opportunities and invite everyone else to live in the moment with him,” says St. Olaf Band alumna Melanie Brooks Dinh ’11.
When Mahr first stepped onto the podium as the conductor of the St. Olaf Band nearly 30 years ago, he understood the immensity of the task in front of him. Since taking the helm, he and the St. Olaf Band have traveled around the world, including tours to Japan, Mexico, Norway, Spain, France, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand. They’ve been featured performers in stunning venues like Ireland’s National Concert Hall in Dublin, Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, Palau de la Musica in Valencia, and Carnegie Hall. In 2021 the ensemble was awarded the prestigious American Prize in Band Performance in the college/university division.
A professor of music at St. Olaf, Mahr started his teaching and conducting career at Milaca (Minnesota) High School and the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He is in great demand globally as a guest conductor and clinician, from Norway to Japan to Thailand. He has conducted All-State bands in almost half of the states in the country.
An acclaimed composer, Mahr has written more than 100 works and has been commissioned by top-tier organizations such as the United States Air Force Band and the Music Educators National Conference. In 1991 he won the Ostwald Award from the American Bandmasters Association, which honors the best new composition of the year, for his piece The Soaring Hawk.
He exemplifies what it means to be an impactful teacher, composer, conductor, and mentor. He demonstrates to everyone that life is better with a band.Rachel Westermeyer Wright ’95
But beyond all the accolades and awards, the thing that truly sets Mahr apart is the way he uses his gifts as an educator, says Terra Widdifield ’95, manager of the St. Olaf Band and associate director of Music Organizations. “He’s so excellent at everything he does that when he extends those high standards to other people, it helps them excel,” Widdifield says. “One of his greatest traits is that his gifts end up benefiting and blessing everyone else as well.”
After three decades of leading the St. Olaf Band with heart and skill, Mahr will retire this coming spring. Fans and former Bandies will have the opportunity to see him lead the ensemble at campus concerts this year, at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, and on tours in California in January and February, and Japan in May.
The St. Olaf Band Winter Tour will include performances throughout California January 30 through February 4. Tickets are available online or by phone at 800-363-5487.
Tickets are also available online for the St. Olaf Band’s special concert at Orchestra Hall on Friday, May 5, at 7:30 p.m.
An Alumni & Family Travel program to Japan from May 30 to June 12, led by Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies Kathy Tegtmeyer Pak and Steve Pak, will include tickets to three of the St. Olaf Band’s concerts on their international tour. Registration is open to all who are interested.
BUILDING A FAMILY
When Mahr took the reins as conductor of the St. Olaf Band, he was just starting a family with his wife, Jill. At the same time, he was continuing to build on the strong foundations of the St. Olaf Band family. From annual Christmas cookie decorating at the Mahr house, to the many hours of bus rides on tour, he created a close-knit community. “He is able to find that balance of being the students’ conductor, being a professor, but also treating them like family while they’re in the band,” Widdifield says.
He also brings his love for his family into the rehearsal room. Mahr often tells stories of Jill, who also teaches in the St. Olaf Music Department, as well as their children, Hannah and Jenna, as inspiration. “It was like opening a window into his soul that went beyond the music and yet heightened our music making,” Brooks Dinh says. “He brought his full self to the podium, and that went beyond being a fine musician and talented conductor. His heart and soul have the capacity to reach out well beyond his individual passion for the music on the page.”
Brooks Dinh is now the director of bands at Winona State University. She says being part of the St. Olaf Band family was transformational for her as an educator. “I always wonder if my students know how much I care; I hope they do. I always knew that Dr. Mahr did — it was just in the air. That’s one of the things that makes him so special. Like a lot of great moments in music, it absolutely goes beyond words,” she says.
BRINGING COMPOSITIONS TO LIFE
In addition to conducting the St. Olaf Band, Mahr is the Robert Scholz Endowed Chair in Music and teaches music composition. For many summers he has mentored St. Olaf Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) students in composition. The CURI program provides students with a stipend for their work, and Mahr has featured many of their compositions in St. Olaf Band programs.
Jesse Brault ’13, a composer and conductor in Berlin, was Mahr’s first CURI student. “To this day, I look for the deeper meaning of the music and art that I encounter, and I try to embody a sense of spirituality, gratitude, and beauty in my own music. I undoubtedly learned this from Dr. Mahr,” he says.
Throughout my time at St. Olaf and in my career since then, he has continued to inspire, not only as a teacher but as a colleague and ardent supporter of my own career and the careers of countless others.Noted composer, conductor, and educator Carl Holmquist ’05
Nearly 10 years later, Mahr is still impacting students through the program. Aryaman Joshi ’23 had one of his compositions, Kaalachakra, The Wheel of Time, premiered on the St. Olaf Band tour last fall. The piece was not only Joshi’s first time writing for band, but also his first time writing for more than four instruments and having his music performed by others. Growing up he wasn’t familiar with wind band music, and he viewed this as a way to share the medium with his community in India. The piece was an instant success, and Joshi received standing ovations on tour and even requests for commissions after performances. He says the experience was life-changing.
“Working with Dr. Mahr helped me emerge as a confident composer with a good idea of my personal musical voice,” Joshi says. “I became well-versed with all the band instruments, and I ended up realizing that I truly love writing for big ensembles and want to continue doing so. Dr. Mahr was always very supportive and understanding from the get-go, despite my initial shortcomings. I had never formally studied composition — I didn’t even know half the band instruments properly! I think Dr. Mahr was more interested in my love for music and compositional ideas than me not knowing what an oboe is.”
Mahr says that working with students in this way has been one of the most impactful aspects of his career. That comes, in part, from the fact that as a composer himself, he knows the power of bringing a composition to life.
“Perhaps the most intense personal experiences were those moments when I conducted a work of mine,” Mahr says. “What used to be a mangled-up set of ideas in my imagination is transformed into a structured work brought to life through the committed effort of an outstanding band. I’ve been so incredibly fortunate.”
Mahr has shared that good fortune by giving numerous Oles the opportunity to have their works brought to life by the St. Olaf Band. Performing these student compositions in programs is something he takes great pride in. “I don’t think I’m reaching in and changing everybody’s life, rather I’m trying to set them up for a really powerful growth experience,” Mahr says. “I’m proud of the fact that I played a small part in contributing to their growth as they were studying here.”
Noted composer, conductor, and educator Carl Holmquist ’05 says in his first few weeks as a student on campus, Mahr already had him hooked on wind band music. “The way that Dr. Mahr approaches the wind band medium is consistently 100 percent as a composer and 100 percent as a conductor/performer. There really is no distinction. Throughout my time at St. Olaf and in my career since then, he has continued to inspire, not only as a teacher but as a colleague and ardent supporter of my own career and the careers of countless others,” he says.
BEYOND THE NOTES
As a composer, Mahr takes great care with his programming for the band and aims to communicate a message to the audience through most concert programs. He says he takes advantage of the chance to speak to a different part of people, especially to their heart.
When selecting the repertoire for a concert, Mahr says he asks himself: “Out of all the music that you could share, what are the pieces that you are going to bring to life in that environment where the acoustic works on them? They’re not listening with headphones or speakers. It’s the vibration in the air — it’s just different. Where will you take them with your program?”
In recent years Mahr has developed a strong social justice focus in his programming. “When you have someone sitting in the audience, the room darkened, silence supporting beautiful sound, I think that their heart opens up, their mind opens up. They let a message come in that doesn’t even have words attached to it. I think we can help them reflect on situations that might be personal and local, let alone national and global. Someone might be moved to take a different tack with their life. I’m hopeful,” he says.
Widdifield has toured with the ensemble for over a decade and has attended scores of St. Olaf Band concerts in her role. “Tim is one of the best programmers I’ve ever experienced,” she says. “His programs scoop you up at the beginning, hold you all the way through, then gently set you down at the end.”
Mahr says that’s part of the goal. “We make people think, we make them ruminate on their own situation and their own level of involvement in aspects of social change.”
ONCE A BANDIE, ALWAYS A BANDIE
Throughout his career, Mahr has made a point to invite back alumni as soloists, conductors, and composers. For this year’s Homecoming and Family Weekend Concert, Mahr invited a slate of guest conductors ranging from the Classes of 1995 to 2011, including Brooks Dinh. An upcoming celebratory performance with the St. Olaf Band on May 5 at Orchestra Hall features trombone soloist Senior Master Sergeant Matt Nudell ’05 of the U.S. Air Force Band.
Mahr says he wants to give others the opportunity to experience the joy he has in working with the St. Olaf Band. “I’ve always thought that this band is like a really fantastic race car, and you’re just handing the keys to somebody and saying ’Here, take this around the block.’ I shouldn’t be the only one who gets to have that fun for so many years,” he says.
This eagerness to collaborate and share the St. Olaf Band experience with others is why Mahr continues to impact his students long after they’ve left the ensemble. His encouragement and guidance goes with them. “One big impact of having Dr. Mahr’s support is that I have never given pause to taking on really big projects or attempting things that I probably had no business attempting,” Brooks Dinh says. “If I had questions, or needed guidance along the way, he would be there in a compassionate way. How empowering is that?”
Nudell agrees. He says Mahr was a trusted advisor to him as a student, and that he is grateful for his encouragement to dive into the performance field. He says it’s hard to choose just one thing that made the biggest impact on him. “So much of my life in the United States Air Force Band is shaped by my time in the St. Olaf Band with Dr. Mahr,” he says. “If I had to boil it down, it would be dedication to the art and craft of music-making, and band as a family.”
This dedication and generosity of spirit has continued to strengthen the Bandie family far beyond students’ time on the Hill. Recently retired St. Olaf Orchestra Conductor Steve Amundson has no doubt about the legacy of Mahr’s time in front of the band. “Unquestionably, it will be the St. Olaf Band community,” he says. “Tim is an enormous talent. But it’s the intangible of how he has shaped this superb ensemble into the vibrant community that it is. The St. Olaf Band is a beautiful ensemble that communicates with intelligence, love, and strong energy that reflects the attitude of the conductor.”
Tim is an enormous talent. But it’s the intangible of how he has shaped this superb ensemble into the vibrant community that it is. The St. Olaf Band is a beautiful ensemble that communicates with intelligence, love, and strong energy that reflects the attitude of the conductor.Retired St. Olaf Orchestra Conductor Steven Amundson
Mahr’s view is a bit more modest. “What got handed off to me in 1994 was the St. Olaf Band, by God, and it was this fantastic opportunity,” he says with his trademark grin, which is so often accompanied by a quip coated in his wry sense of humor. “To this point in my career, I don’t think it’s gotten worse. So maybe that’s the most successful thing I’ve done — I didn’t drive the ship up on the rocks.”
Of course, as so many Oles know, Mahr’s work has elevated the St. Olaf Band to new levels of excellence and inspired scores of students to pursue professional careers in music. But that continuation of excellence doesn’t end with those who chose to pursue music professionally. Dozens of St. Olaf Band alumni now play in the Minnesota Symphonic Winds (MSW), a community band that Mahr conducts based in the Twin Cities. The ensemble has toured nationally and internationally from Alaska to Canada to Singapore, and was invited to perform at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago. Mahr will continue to conduct the MSW band after retiring from St. Olaf.
Rachel Westermeyer Wright ’95 was the St. Olaf Band president when Mahr arrived on the Hill, and she has performed in MSW since before Mahr took the podium in 1999. She says she knew he was the right person for the job from the first time she worked with him in her St. Olaf days, and that has continued through to MSW. “He has high standards, and wants us to make exceptional music together. Anyone who has played under his baton knows that smile across his face and sparkle in his eye when the music is really coming alive during a performance. And, yet, he never allows us to forget to have fun in the process,” she says. “He exemplifies what it means to be an impactful teacher, composer, conductor, and mentor. He demonstrates to everyone that life is better with a band.”
Mahr’s following extends far beyond St. Olaf, both nationally and internationally. His compositions are revered in Japan, where he and the band have been received with rockstar receptions at every tour stop. The St. Olaf Band departs for Japan in Mahr’s final tour conducting the ensemble this spring.
Naoya Takizawa is the associate director of bands and lecturer at Senzoku Gakuen College of Music, and he will be hosting a shared concert with the St. Olaf Band in Tokyo next spring. “Dr. Mahr’s music is accessible to everyone, yet highly artistic. I don’t think there are many composers who have both of these qualities. He is a role model even in Japan, our distant land across the sea, and still has a great influence today,” he says.
Outside of the music building, Mahr is also a leader on campus. As a recent member of the Faculty Life Committee, he was instrumental in establishing an award honoring faculty working for social justice. It was part of an effort to highlight the intentionality of faculty members working on these issues. He says it’s one of the things he’s most proud of. “It has nothing to do with me as a musician, but everything to do with me as a person,” Mahr says.
THE FINAL CHORD
As his time on the podium and the Hill comes to an end, colleagues say they will miss Mahr’s warmth and humor. “Tim has long been one of the most brilliant among us. And I’ve been grateful for his wisdom, his camaraderie, and his leadership,” says Amundson.
Mahr says he is looking forward to more time to compose and also to spend with Jill. At the same time, closing this chapter will be difficult. “I hope that I can communicate effectively what a privilege it’s been for me to do this. I’m tearing up right now thinking about it,” he says. “I don’t want to give up the podium at all. When I’m in rehearsal with the band, I want to stay there forever.”