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Influential Concordia, FM Symphony musician 'was at the right place at the right time'

J. Robert Hanson, who died earlier this month, is remembered for elevating the Fargo-Moorhead music scene from 1960s to the 1990s.

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Former FMSO music director and Concordia College professor J. Robert Hanson.
Contributed / Special to The Forum
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MOORHEAD — Following his death on June 2, J. Robert Hanson is being remembered for shaping the Fargo-Moorhead music scene from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s.

Hanson died at his Northfield, Minn., home surrounded by family at the age of 92.

The musician, composer and educator was so influential, his reputation preceded him.

Trombonist Ed Huttlin met him in 1979 when he interviewed for a teaching position at Concordia College, where Hanson taught trumpet. Before coming to visit, Huttlin asked friends at Michigan State University, where he had just finished his doctorate, what he should know about Concordia.

“They said, ‘Bob Hanson is an amazing trumpet player. You’ll enjoy working with him,’” Huttlin recalled.

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Indeed, they not only taught side by side, but Huttlin played trombone under Hanson, the music director in the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra , from 1979 until Hanson retired in 1990 after 16 years at the helm.

Huttlin and his wife, clarinetist Marianne Huttlin, just retired from the FM Symphony after 43 years in the organization.

“He was always very relaxed. He was slow to anger and never got upset,” Huttlin said, adding that Hanson’s low-key personality was a hit with artists.

“Musicians loved playing for him,” he said.

Hanson would make a point of programming concerts influenced by the musicians’ selections.

“He always chose pieces the orchestra wanted to play,” Huttlin said. “He programmed really well.”

As a trumpet player himself, Huttlin was more drawn to programming Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Brahms, pieces that featured woodwinds and brass.

The pieces may have been what the musicians wanted to play, but it was also what audiences wanted to hear. Huttlin recalls a community concert in the early 1980s that featured children’s entertainer Shari Lewis and her famous sock puppet Lamb Chop. The two concerts packed a total of 10,000 people into Concordia College’s Memorial Auditorium.

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I was at that show, and while I don’t remember it vividly, I remember my 10-year-old self enjoying it.

In his 16 years with the FMSO, Hanson brought in a number of nationally known soloists, like pianist Lorin Hollander, bass player Gary Karr, French horn player Barry Tuckwell and even jazz great trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

Star power aside, Hanson’s tenure is best remembered for how the FMSO evolved under his eye.

“Before Bob took over, it was basically a community orchestra. When Bob took over, it got professional and Bob saw to it that players got paid,” Huttlin said.

He had a similarly important imprint on Concordia, where he conducted the Concordia Band, as well as founded and conducted the Concordia Orchestra.

A native of Osakis, Minn., Hanson attended Concordia after high school where he graduated with a degree in music education. It was also at Concordia where he met Lois Beckstrom of Fargo, who he married in 1951, the year he graduated.

He went on to earn a Ph.D. in composition and a Master of Arts in music education and a Master of Fine Arts in trumpet performance at the University of Iowa. In 1959, he would move on to teach trumpet at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and became principal trumpet in the Milwaukee Symphony. When the symphony spot became a full-time job and Hanson had to choose between the two positions, Hanson chose to teach and came back to Concordia to teach from 1966 until retiring in 1995.

“He was a very knowledgeable musician and witty. He was very low-key and students loved him,” Huttlin said.

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After retiring from Concordia, Hanson moved to Minneapolis and joined the music faculty at St. Olaf College in Northfield where he taught for 17 more years.

Hanson last returned to Concordia in the spring of 2020 and directed the Concordia College Orchestra in a performance of his own composition, “Chorale Variant.” Concordia professor and FMSO bassoonist Russ Peterson posted a video of that performance to YouTube two days after Hanson’s death.

“Bob never seemed to change. He always looked the same, always looked sharp. He never showed signs of aging,” Huttlin said. “He had a way of keeping people engaged. He was at the right place at the right time.”

A service for Hanson will be held at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, June 12, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, and the service will be livestreamed at westminstermpls.online.church .

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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